How To Avoid Neck, Back, and Shoulder Pain From Using a Smartphone

Are you experiencing pain or discomfort in your neck, upper back, or shoulder from using your smartphone? Dr. Jonathan Su, the Get-Fit Guy, shows you simple solutions for preventing and relieving mobile device related repetitive strain injuries.

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
4-minute read
Episode #558
The Quick And Dirty

You don't need to cut down on screen time in order to relieve repetive strain injuries from using your smartphone (though it might not be a bad idea). Instead, just try two simple techniques to prevent the injury, and if you do get an RSI, two simple exercises to help relieve pain.

Are you experiencing pain or discomfort in your neck, upper back, or shoulder from mobile device usage? You’re not alone—I’ve definitely noticed these complaints on the rise and I’ve had several clients see me specifically to address these symptoms.

The truth is, we live in a hyper-connected world where most of us are constantly on our mobile devices, whether we’re texting friends, watching videos, checking the news, working, playing games, looking things up, or swapping between different social media apps. And if you’ve got a busy life like me, you’re probably doing most, if not all, of these things while on the go. 

The good news is that there are simple solutions for preventing and relieving mobile device related neck, upper back, and shoulder pain. The great news is that these solutions won’t interfere with our need to stay connected. Because, come on, do you really think I’m going to ask you to cut back on screen time? 

Mobile device related repetitive strain injuries 

Tenderness, stiffness, or tingling in your neck, upper back, and shoulder that’s associated with mobile device usage is likely a result of overuse from stressing the same muscles through repetition or maintaining the same posture for long periods of time.

Go to your local coffee shop and watch closely. When most people are on their mobile device, they’re looking down at their device with their head and neck forward, their upper back slouched, and their arm held in front of their body. 

People hold these abnormal postures like statues for hours throughout the day while using their mobile devices. It’s no wonder their neck, upper back, and shoulder are screaming at them and research shows that these are the most common parts of the body mobile device users complain about. 

These issues, known as repetitive strain injuries, impact muscles, nerves, tendons, and ligaments. Depending on the severity, repetitive strain injuries can take anywhere between a few weeks to six months to heal. 

I’ve experienced mobile device related repetitive strain injuries firsthand myself and have successfully worked on it with several clients. Luckily, the solutions are simple and don’t require you to cut down on screen time. 

2 techniques for preventing mobile device related repetitive strain 

Here are 2 techniques for preventing repetitive strain in your neck, upper back, or shoulder.

Elbow tuck hold

The elbow tuck hold is a way of holding your mobile device that reduces strain on your muscles. It involves dropping your shoulder, tucking your elbow against the side of your body, and bringing your hand closer to your face on the side holding your mobile device. Do this with both arms if you’re holding a device with two hands. 

Dropping your shoulder and tucking your elbow against the side of your body will prevent strain in your shoulder by allowing the muscles in your shoulder to relax. Bringing your hand closer to your face will prevent strain in your neck and upper back by allowing your head to be in a more neutral position. 

15 minute rule

Research shows that if usage was capped to less than 15 min, the majority of mobile device users would avoid symptoms. Instead of capping usage, because it’s pointless to set impossible goals, you can simply change positions every 15 minutes to give other parts of your body a chance to work. 

For example, if you’re holding a mobile device in your right hand, try switching it to your left hand or try using both hands. If you’ve been using your mobile device while sitting upright, try reclining your body partially or even fully. Change your position every 15 minutes and you’ll notice how much less strain you feel. 

2 exercises for relieving mobile device related repetitive strain 

Here are 2 exercises for relieving repetitive strain in your neck, upper back, or shoulder. Be sure to check out my YouTube videos for instructions on how to perform these exercises.

Floor press with chin tuck

This exercise will simultaneously strengthen your upper back and neck muscles, which will help improve your posture and reverse the negative effects of having your head and neck forward and upper back slouched typical of most mobile device users. 

Lie on your back with your hips and knees bent 90-degrees and your feet off the floor. Your elbows are tucked against your torso and are bent 90-degrees. Begin exercising by lowering your shoulders down and lifting your head one inch off the floor, while ensuring your head remains aligned with your torso. Hold your head in this position and simultaneously push the back of your arms as firmly as you can against the floor to attempt to lift your upper back one inch off the floor. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds and repeat for 3 sets. 

Upper trap stretch 

This exercise will help relieve tension in your neck and your upper trapezius muscle on the top of your shoulders. 

Sit in a chair with your torso and head upright. Hook one hand on the side of the seat and your other hand above your opposite ear. Begin stretching by dropping your shoulders and gently pulling your head to the side until you feel a good pull in your upper trapezius muscle. Hold for 60 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.

5-day repetitive strain prevention challenge

Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day repetitive strain prevention challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to perform the 2 techniques and 2 exercises suggested in this post. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104. 

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.