How to Get Rid of Laptop Aches and Pains

If you’re reading this from a laptop, FREEZE!  How is your body positioned?  If you’re anything like the average laptop user, chances are you’re leaning slightly forward, with your head and neck forward and down (aka “hunched” over your laptop screen).  When typing, you might strain your shoulders and awkwardly bend your wrists because of a desk that is too high or a lap that is too low.  You already know your posture is bad, and you probably forced yourself to sit perfectly straight after reading the last two sentences.  You also know that you’ll probably be back to your hunched over position in the next few minutes.  Or is there something you can do about it?  This week we decided to dive into the world of ergonomics and come up with some rules of thumb for healthy laptop use. 

Researchers have been studying the ergonomics of laptop use for years.  Bowman et al. showed that “common laptop habits can have severe physiological effects ranging from eye strain, poor posture, upper extremity pain, and other injuries resulting from overuse.” Moffet et al. studied the causes of musculoskeletal pain related to laptop use and found multiple common positions that resulted in “high muscle load levels in the trapezius and deltoid muscles.”  Hamilton et al. showed that laptop users have report musculoskeletal complaints at a higher rate compared to desktop users. 
The bottom line: more people are using laptops for longer periods of time, and laptops were designed for portability, not ergonomics.  The poor body positioning associated with laptop designs, when repeated often or over a long period of time, can have significant physiological effects on the user.

You can greatly improve your body position by focusing on two main areas: (1) Head and neck balance, and (2) Wrist and elbow position.

Image Source: A very in-depth whitepaper from the folks at ergotron.com.  Yeah, they did the math.  Check it out here. 

Image Source: A very in-depth whitepaper from the folks at ergotron.com.  Yeah, they did the math.  Check it out here

(1)   Head and Neck Balance
When hunched forward, your heavy head (10+ lbs!) can cause significant strain on your neck and back.  “For seated workers, the optimal position of the head is centered over the midline of the body… If the head is held out of the neutral position, the force exerted on the spine is compounded by a factor of ten for every inch off center.”  We often end up in this hunched forward position when using a laptop because the viewing angle is not ideal.  “Current research and technical standards recommend that… the top of the screen should be no higher than eye level and the center of the screen should be about 15º to 30º below the level of the user’s eyes” (Comfortable Portable Computing: The Ergonomic Equation). 

(2)   Wrist and Elbow Position
ecause the keyboard is attached to the screen, laptop users often find themselves optimizing the screen position at the expense of proper elbow or wrist positioning.  Elbows should stay close to the body and be bent at approximately 90º.  Hands and wrists should not be bent or turned, and should remain straight.  “When you type, keep your wrists straight, with your hands a little higher than your wrists. Relax your shoulders when your arms are at your sides.”  Taking good care of your wrists and hands can help avoid long term issues like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (Source: WebMD).

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Image Source: atmac.org.  Follow the link for more tips on preventing arm pain!

The Takeaways:

  • Use an external monitor like SPUD, which can easily be positioned anywhere due to its light weight.  SPUD will help to ensure the top of your screen is at eye level, which will keep your posture straight and your head and neck in balance.
  • Use a wireless keyboard to give you additional flexibility when setting up your laptop workstation.  Separating the keyboard from the screen will help maintain proper arm and wrist form that will no longer be impacted by the position of your laptop.