We are a world in pain — and a lot of it is in our neck. You don’t have to be tied to a computer or a phone all day to feel this, even if most of us are, whether by job or by choice — or both.
According to the latest World Digital Report, released in March, the average UAE resident spent seven hours and 24 minutes online every day in 2020. That was slightly higher than the global average of seven hours per day, which is the equivalent of an entire weekend each and every week.
All of this time spent with our heads in an unnatural, forward-jutting position can lead to a host of problems and the medically recognized condition known as “tech neck.” As a journalist for 25 years, addicted to my devices and required to sit and type for long stretches, I’ve been battling various iterations of neck, shoulder and back pain for most of that time.
I’ve learned along the way that there is a lot that can be done to mitigate the damage and provide relief, including regular stretching sessions, neck strengthening, exercise and yoga. But when it hurts, it hurts, and although not all the wacky gadgets cluttering up our social media feeds are worth the investment, several are. Here is my tried-and-tested list of the top devices, gadgets and services to try.
I was getting an ultrasound earlier this summer when the technician grabbed the screen and pulled it closer to him. I craned my already stiff neck to get a look: it was attached to some sort of easily moveable arm — and I immediately wanted one. So when NeckDoctor got in touch and asked if I wanted to try one of their devices, I said a quick yes. Founder and CEO Tarun K Balani said the company experienced a huge spike in demand for its products during the stages of the Covid pandemic and it has continued into 2021. “We continue to see a rise in trend where our customers wish to have their monitors fixed on the wall or desk to protect their spine and neck movements in their body.”
NeckDoctor’s desk and wall products feature one full-motion single-monitor arm built with steel and aluminum that uses gas spring technology to adjust and counterbalance the weight of any monitor (they are becoming popular in hotels, because they work for televisions, too). Think completely free 360° movement of your computer. No more putting it on books or boxes if you want to stand; no more craning your neck. Moving to NeckDoctor for my desktop — the device fits most 13 to 32-inch monitors, and they just launched a version for laptops, too — has been a game changer.
• NeckDoctor for desk and wall retails for Dh320 on Amazon, Sharaf DG, Carrefour, Neckdoctor.store.
Roost for laptops
When I was still working full-time in an office, I dreamed of the freedom to work from a cafe or from home. And as soon as I became a freelancer, I did just that. I sat cross-legged on the couch, propped up on pillows in bed, perched at a high-top table in a mall Starbucks — initially I was having the time of my life. In short order neck pain worse than anything I had ever felt in my previous time working at a desktop — with short stints on a laptop while on assignment — set in. And when I visited a physio for emergency help, he said it was something he saw in his office all the time. “Laptops weren’t made for full-time use,” he told me. During the course of treatment, he advised that I get an external keyboard and mouse, and always sit properly at a desk or table, with back straight and elbows and wrists in line. That helped, but I still suffered, and also spent a considerable amount of money trying laptop stands. One heavy version ordered through Apple worked until it didn’t — my laptop slid right onto the floor. I also couldn’t take it anywhere, which was my complaint with all of the devices on the market. Then Tim Ferris recommended Roost, the super affordable, adjustable and totally lightweight laptop stand, in one of his 5-Bullet Friday newsletters, and I was sold. He spotted a coder using it in a Starbucks, and when he stopped to ask him what it was, the coder said: “I love this laptop stand. My posture has immediately improved.” And that’s exactly what I tell all the people who stop to ask me about my Roost since I ordered it 18 months ago. I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve talked to about it — it’s better than having a cute dog for sparking conversations with random strangers, much of it spent commiserating about the pain we experience from using our laptops.
• Roost is available from Amazon — although supply varies in the UAE, as does cost. From Dh350.
I’m always surprised at how few people know about dry needling, let alone use it to help their neck and shoulder pain. In my experience, it’s a sort-of unpleasant approach to a real release and relief. Occasionally when I’m really busy, I’ll ignore my stiff neck and it will worsen, creating a dire tension headache that stops my ability to work altogether. At those times, a session of dry needling does the trick. Dry needling uses the same tool of acupuncture — the needle — but it is a treatment that stems from the West. And unlike acupuncture, which works on the body’s energy lines based on principles of Chinese medicine, dry needling involves sticking the needles directly into the muscles, eliciting a “twitch” response, followed by a relaxation and loosening, that comes as the muscle fibers realign. Blood flow is boosted and the trigger point is relaxed.
Roxanne Francis, physiotherapist at Nightingale Physiotherapy Center in Dubai’s Gold and Diamond Park, explains: “We basically want the muscle fibers just to reorganize out of the trigger points, or knots, and start functioning properly and to restore blood flow to the area.”
• Dry needling is available at select physiotherapy centers throughout the UAE. Prices vary but usually start from Dh400.
Instapark Cervical neck pillow
From time to time I like to take to social media to get some virtual laughs with this ridiculous-looking device, but it is actually a great investment. And when I told Tim Fletcher, physiotherapist and part-owner of Bounceback Physiotherapy at Yas Marina — not one for gimmicks — that I’d purchased it after seeing it online, he said, “Now that is a device I can endorse.” How does it work? Basically once the device is inflated, it creates optimal spinal alignment and a hint of extra space, which takes pressure off your nerves. I find it gives instant relief whenever I use it.
• The Instapark pillow is available from a variety of online vendors including Amazon, starting at Dh78.
Pain-Free by Pete Egoscue
Although I tend to consult the experts when I’m in neck pain — and spend a small fortune — there is one simple, free and easy way to alleviate it. I was introduced to Pete Egoscue’s method, and his 2000 book Pain-Free, when someone recommended it years ago when I was at the end of my tether after a frustrating year trying to heal from plantar faciitis. Nothing was working, until I did his simple exercises every day. The truth is, Pete’s book has healed me from so many aches and pains over the years, including my neck, that I recommend it to anyone who will listen. His approach? Postural imbalances are at the root of your chronic pain, and a series of alignment exercises — he has them for all areas of the body — can correct them. It works. So why do I always forget about it? It almost seems too easy. And the exercises, many which involve lying down or sitting, can be time-consuming. But always worth it.
Amazon’s #1 neck and shoulder relaxer
Neck traction is obviously a big business these days and over on Amazon, the number one device is a turquoise neck relaxer that promises to make you feel better in 10 minutes using gravity and your own bodyweight. (And it does). Lying on it provides a gentle traction and relaxation, similar to that wonderful feeling when a physio cradles your cranium. Safety-wise, you are advised to start with the convex side for gentle traction, gradually switching over to the concave side for a greater stretch of the cervical spine. There can be a bit of discomfort at first, but any pain means that you should discontinue use and consult a professional. And as with any method of alleviating spinal tension, regular use is key. As one reviewer who has a degenerative disk and fibromyalgia put it: “This one item has done more for me in 10 minutes than any amount of yoga, exercise, weight loss, physiotherapy, massage, medication… you name it. I was astounded at the immediate relief.”
• Neck and shoulder relaxer via Amazon. Prices vary; from Dh80.
Functional mobility and stretching
You can wait until things get desperate — and that’s what most of us do — or you can be an adult and acknowledge that if you are going to spend so much of your day online, regular functional mobility work is your friend. Help is quickly available online, through programs like Sue Hitzmann’s Melt Method or Sita Hagenburg and John Kelly’s Bendable Body, both of which target the fascia. There are functional mobility specialists — Belinda Tan at Body Tree Studio in Abu Dhabi is working wonders for her clients with a combination of Kinetic Link, barefoot, neurokinetic and clinical orthopedic therapy, as well as sports massage, myofascial release and more. Fitness First offers 45-minute XFIT Mobility classes, featuring dynamic stretching and myofascial release, throughout the UAE. Or just go to YouTube and search “functional mobility” until you find a class you like. And don’t forget to check out Bob Schrupp and Brad Heineck’s channel: with 3.2 million subscribers and a library of videos about every ailment you can imagine, they’ve earned their self-professed titles of “the most famous physical therapists on the Internet.”
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.