Protecting Your Back, Neck and Arms from “Laptop-itis”

Aug. 20, 2010
The symptoms are familiar to any employee working on the go or any student who has ever spent hours pounding out a paper on a laptop computer: an aching neck, throbbing head and tingling fingers.

Because of the way the computers are designed, using a laptop almost inevitably leads to poor posture, said Kevin Carneiro, DO, a doctor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. Incorrect posture and computer overuse can cause debilitating physical problems, such as sore muscles or repetitive stress injuries. Typing can also cause carpal tunnel syndrome, an injury to the nerve that passes through the wrist.

Carneiro said that when you work at a computer, your body should form 90-degree angles at your elbows, knees and hips. Meanwhile, your eyes should look straight ahead at the top third of the screen. But because the keyboard and monitor in a laptop are combined, they can’t be positioned independently for typing and viewing.

“When you use a laptop, you have to make some sort of sacrifice,” Carneiro said.

Most laptop users end up with incorrect neck or shoulder posture, he said, which can lead to muscle pain in those areas. With laptops increasing in popularity – global sales of laptops surpassed that of desktop computers for the first time in 2008, according to the market research firm iSuppli – the ergonomic risks are growing.

For frequent laptop users, Carneiro said the ideal solution is to use a docking station. The station links a laptop to another monitor and keyboard or to a stand that raises the screen to a higher level. You also can use a USB cable to connect your laptop to an extra monitor or keyboard, which you can then adjust to the proper height.

Follow these additional tips for a more ergonomically friendly laptop experience:

• When you purchase a laptop, consider how much it weighs, including accessories such as the power cord, spare battery or external hard drive.
• Use an adjustable chair with back support.
• As you use the laptop, position it directly in front of you on your desk. Adjust it so that you can read the screen without bending your neck, such as by using a docking station.
• Set up your mouse so that your wrist is in a neutral position. Both your wrists and elbows should be supported.
• Take short breaks every 20 minutes to allow your muscles to rest in a different position. Taking breaks also will help you maintain concentration as you power through projects.
• During breaks, adjust your posture by shrugging your shoulder and gently rolling your head from side to side. Sit in a position that keeps the spine straight, shoulders level and shoulder blades close together.
• Watch for these warning signs: neck and shoulder pain, headaches at the top of your head, wrist pain or tingling in your fingers, particularly in your thumb. These symptoms indicate that you need to take more frequent breaks, adjust your posture or see a doctor.
• Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water keeps the discs in your back lubricated and healthy, Carneiro said.
• Don’t forget to exercise daily.

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