Laptop design can be a pain in the posture

Danielle Weatherbee knows that her notebook computer is her undoing, but she can’t help it. As a medical supplies saleswoman, she’s on the road constantly, spending much of the day hunched over her keyboard at coffee shops, on planes, in bed, even in cabs.

The painful result for the 29-year-old from Seattle is the same as it is for the growing legions of laptop users across the USA: Her neck and wrists ache. Her doctor warned her she already has the skeletal health of a 50- year-old. “But what can I really do?” wonders Weatherbee as she looks up from her Compaq laptop to take a sip of latte at a Coffee Lounge in Las Vegas. “My laptop is the only way to go for my work. I couldn’t live without it.”

Weatherbee’s woes are becoming increasingly common. The culprit: The keyboard and screen on laptops are too close to each other. College students, who increasingly are required to own laptops and use them in lecture halls built for 20th-century academic life, are having a particularly rough time.

When Duke University ergonomics guru Tamara James appeared before first-year medical students some months ago to raise their awareness of the computer posture problems they can expect to see in future patients, James was bombarded by ergonomics complaints from the students themselves. “They sit in lecture halls with built-in tables, hunched over their laptops eight hours a day, and you can see it’s very uncomfortable with them,” James says. “Even if they could move their chairs, which would be a help.”

Meanwhile, the cost plummeted to $1,116 per unit from a U.S. average of $2,126 in 2007, according to IDC, a Framingham, Mass., technology market research firm. Already in 2007, analysts predicted that U.S. laptop sales could overtake desktop sales by 2010, and the fact of the matter is that this even happened faster!

Few health studies have been conducted, but one study in 2012 showed that laptop users complain of pain in more and different body parts than desktop users, says researcher Carolyn Sommerich of the Institute of Ergonomics at Ohio State University. That’s because desktop users, once they’ve gotten used to it, have the ability to set the top of the screen at eye level and the keyboard about 20 inches below that for optimum posture. “People who use desktop computers have a fair amount of muscle and skeletal complaints, too, but laptops are, in a way, kind of a step backward in design,” Sommerich says.

The answer is to find ways to replicate the upright and flexible posture of the desktop experience for notebook computers, ergonomic experts say. Laptop accessories aimed at improving ergonomic conditions are a growing niche. Logitech leads the way with wireless mice and keyboards. Several manufacturers sell stands to prop up laptops. TableTote sells a $50 plastic portable stand with telescoping legs that packs up to the same size as a bulky notebook and weighs about 3 pounds.

While many of those offerings aren’t practical for laptop users who frequently travel, major computer makers also are starting to address the problem, says Rob Bernstein, deputy editor of the gadgets magazine Sync. Toshiba announced earlier this year that it would soon sell a laptop that allows screen and keyboard to become two pieces to allow more flexible positioning.

And, Bernstein noted, some manufacturers are experimenting with laser keyboards that shine images of a keyboard on any surface and allow computer users to type on it. “The technology is finally coming through, so people are starting to find clever ways to use it to deal with this,” Bernstein says.

Experts say the sooner, the better. Ergonomists increasingly are concerned that laptop use among children is causing what were once considered old-age pains at an ever-younger age. Worse yet, many fear that those who have learned poor ergonomics in their youth will find it difficult to learn better posture later on. “I see a good number of kids come in with lower back pain,” says chiropractor David Schwartz of the Back Care Center in Dumont, N.J. We must dedicate more time to educating people about these key elements to stay healthy.

“Have you seen pictures of kids using computers? They lie on their stomachs on the floor and work on their elbows. “That’s a prescription for a lifetime of neck pain, back pain and lower back pain.” James, the Duke University ergonomist, is similarly worried. “I hate the fact that these are the workers of tomorrow, and they have upper-extremity problems before they even get to the workplace,” she says. “That doesn’t bode well at all.”