Protecting your back, neck and arms from 'laptop-itis'

August 11, 2010 — Purchasing a laptop computer has become a ritual for many new college students. But using a laptop often leads to posture problems, which can have serious long-term health consequences. UNC expert Dr. Kevin Carneiro explains how students can guard themselves from “laptop-itis” from orientation to final exams.

  Protecting your back, neck and arms from 'laptop-itis' click to enlarge Most laptop users end up with incorrect neck or shoulder posture, which can lead to muscle pain in those areas. Photo by Ed Yourdon/Creative Commons.

Written by Sara Peach for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, NC — The symptoms are familiar to any student who has ever spent a long night 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 are combined in a laptop, 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.

The problem is likely to become more widespread as many universities, including UNC-Chapel Hill, now require first-year students to purchase laptops.

In 2008, global sales of laptops surpassed that of desktop computers for the first time, according to iSuppli, a market research firm based in El Segundo, Calif.

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 can also use a FireWire or USB cable to connect your laptop to an extra monitor or keyboard, which you can then adjust to the proper height.

Other Tips for Back Protection

  • When you purchase a laptop, consider how much it weighs, including accessories such as the power cord, spare battery or external hard drive. If you're a student, remember that you'll be carrying heavy textbooks in addition to the computer.
  • For your dorm room, obtain 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. As a bonus, taking breaks will help you maintain your concentration as you power through long papers.
  • During your breaks, adjust your posture by shrugging your shoulder and gently rolling your head from side to side. You can also try Bruegger's position, which helps to keep the spine straight, shoulders level and shoulder blades close together, Carneiro said. (You can learn more about Bruegger's position here.)
  • 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. And don't forget to exercise daily.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

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