Students Warned to Beware of 'Laptop-itis'

MONDAY, Aug. 16 (HealthDay News) — The very design of laptop computers encourages bad posture among college students and other heavy users, which can lead to headaches, muscle strain and debilitating neck, shoulder and hand injuries, researchers caution.

The issue stems from the unified body construction that defines laptops, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, explained in a university news release. With an inseparable keyboard and monitor, users are not free to configure their equipment in a way that minimizes risk.

“When you use a laptop, you have to make some sort of sacrifice,” Dr. Kevin Carneiro, a physician in the UNC School of Medicine’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, stated in the news release.

Such a sacrifice to convenience comes at a price, Carneiro noted. Awkward positioning of the fingers and body can cause nerve injury to the wrist and prompt the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome, while poor neck position and shoulder posture can cause muscle strain and soreness in those areas.

Signs of trouble typically come in the form of headaches, wrist pain, tingling in the fingers or thumb, and neck and shoulder pain, he added.

Concern about such laptop health issues is driven by their rising popularity, as worldwide sales now exceed those of standard desktop computers. Students are particularly vulnerable, since laptops are a common feature of campus life.

That said, Carneiro and his colleagues point out that laptop users can take specific steps to minimize their risk.

  • If you are working at a computer, your body should form 90-degree angles at the elbows, knees and hips.
  • Use a docking station and cables to hook up to an external monitor and/or separate keyboard that are moveable to encourage better posture.
  • With the help of a docking station, position the computer so you can read the screen without bending your neck.
  • Pay attention to the chair you sit in — look for one that is adjustable and comes with back support.
  • Tilt the screen so you don’t need to bend your neck, and place the mouse so that your wrists are in a neutral position (one in which they are aligned with your arm and not raised above it).
  • Take frequent short breaks every 20 minutes or so — this can help rest muscles and encourage position shifting. Do some shoulder shrugs, gentle forward head rolls, and shoulder scrunches to stretch your muscles.
  • Stay hydrated — drinking plenty of water can help keep discs in your back lubricated.

In addition, watch out for warning signs, including pain and tingling. Carneiro said these may mean you need to use better posture, take more breaks, or see a doctor.

More information

For more on laptops and posture, visit the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.