Beware the Laptop Pandemic

Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author

When they first came out nearly 30 years ago, laptop computers weren’t intended to take the place of desktops. They were meant to be a handy tool for workers who spent time away from their desks but needed easy access to a computer.

Today, laptops outsell desktops and they’re a constant companion on trains, planes, offices and yes, even in bed. Unfortunately, laptops aren’t designed to be used for hours on end, and the results for millions of users who scrunch up in small places with an awkwardly placed computer are sore necks, shoulders, wrists and backs.

The problem is ergonomics. The screen’s usually not at the correct height (you’re often peering down at it) and the keyboard and mouse are attached, forcing your wrists and arms into over or under-stretched positions. If your laptop and accessories weigh more than 10 pounds and you lug them constantly, shoulder and back pain are quick to develop.

To avoid laptop stress and strain, make your laptop fit you, rather than force your body to contort and fit your laptop. Especially if you’re using it for long periods of time (as a desktop substitute), be sure to do the following:

  • Take breaks. Your body isn’t made to be static for long periods of time. Stretch your neck, back, arms, shoulders, and wrists. Glance up and away from the screen occasionally while working to give your eyes a break.  Need a reminder?  Check this out.
  • Dock it. When at your desk, dock your laptop and use full sized screens to ensure that what you’re working on is at eye level. This keeps your head/neck in a neutral, healthy position, rather than craning up or tilted too far down.
  • Accessorize. Attach a separate keyboard and mouse to keep your arms and wrists in a neutral position (at 90 degrees), rather than overstretched or scrunched in. Keep your mouse at the same height as your keyboard and close enough to avoid straining the shoulders and neck
  • Stay (properly) seated. While you can use a laptop in almost any position, it doesn’t mean you should.  Use a chair that supports your lumbar spine and allows your feet to be flat on the floor.   Also, don’t lie on your stomach and use your laptop in bed or on the floor. Your lower back doesn’t like the stress.
  • Think big. Tiny seems cool, but if you can’t see your screen easily, you’re adding eyestrain to the list of laptop maladies. Same with your keyboard: If you can’t comfortably type on it, consider getting a larger size.
  • Lug smart. Lugging your laptop. If you carry your laptop a lot from one location to another, consider a backpack-style bag to distribute the weight evenly on your back/shoulders, rather than a shoulder bag that stresses out one shoulder constantly. Bags on wheels are also handy, especially if you’re carrying batteries, portable printers, and other components. If you must shoulder your laptop, switch sides often.
  • Prop it up. If a desk or table isn’t available where you’re working, elevate the laptop with a pillow or books to achieve as neutral a position as possible for your wrists. Angle the screen as much as you can to avoid neck strain.
  • Avoid the super comfy slouch. If you’re sitting on a sofa or cushy chair without back support, be aware of poor posture. Find a cushion, towel or pillow to support your lumbar spine.
  • Relax. Constantly claw-gripping your mouse will irritate your hand and wrist.  Make sure to relax your hand when you’re using you mouse and stretch it out and move it as much as possible.

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