Top 10 Laptop Ergonomic Tips to Prevent and Reduce Pain

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Due to the rise in laptop sales at an all time high and the nature of laptop design there exists an entirely new set of ergonomic issues for computer users. Ergonomics touts the benefits of being able to adjust the keyboard, monitor and chair so that the workspace can be fitted to the computer user for maximum comfort and productivity.

The shoulders, neck, arms, hands and wrist must be in a relaxed position when viewing the screen and when typing and mousing. Oh yes, the back, hips and legs want to be comfortable too.

So let’s examine the Laptop Ergonomic Challenge.

The Laptop Ergonomic Challenge:
In the case of laptops, the keyboard and monitor are connected at the hip and it is virtually impossible to adjust the keyboard and screen height independently of each other. If there were a way to adjust the screen up and pull the keyboard out, down and toward the laptop user it would let the shoulders relax and give them more breathing room. There would be less of a reach to the keyboard and the rest of the body could relax and work in it’s neutral posture and open posture.

This would allow the circulatory system to do it’s job much more effectively and would be a first step to solving many of the laptop ergonomic challenges.

Are any manufacturers listening?

The Effect on The Body:
When the laptop is placed in the lap, the neck is bent down to see the screen. This moves the neck out of it’s natural S curve and actually stretches the muscles of the neck the opposite way creating a strain which can develop into chronic pain if not checked early on. The pain may continue on into the shoulder and into the back. It really depends on the amount of laptop usage and various other physical conditions of the body as well as additional factors such as the amount of exercise, stretching and rest. Stress plays a large part in this too.

The keyboard is smaller causing the keys to be closer together and this creates “shoulder scrunch" with tense muscles and reduced circulation. Often there is no room for an external mouse, so using the mouse in the middle of the keyboard further scrunches the body.

The keys are further away from the body so this causes a reach to the keyboard, which can cause additional strain. The wrists have no choice but to rest on the laptop’s hard surface and there is the likelihood that additional pressure is being placed on the underside of the wrist and carpal tunnel.

Often, the laptop is placed on a table that is too high (kitchen table, hotel or client’s desk) and this further tenses the shoulder muscles with keyboard and mouse use. In order to place the hands on the laptop to type the shoulder muscles are tensed up. The arms are in a positive tilt position and this make it more difficult for the circulation to pump blood and oxygen to the hands.

And now is an extremely important time to have that extra oxygen! Just when the body requires it the most is when it receives less.

An example of how this works outside of the laptop world is as follows: Can you remember a time when you were involved with an activity where your arms were working above your shoulders such as when hanging pictures or paining a wall? You may have felt extreme fatigue and had to stop because it required much more energy to hold your arm up or may have begun to feel pain.

Working for long stretches on a laptop not positioned for the body’s comfort will create this same condition. The main difference is that most of us do not paint and hang pictures everyday but the laptop use is so high that it is causing chronic pain for many.

Another location for laptops use is while seated on a couch with no back support this causes the shoulders to lean forward and moves the back and neck from it’s natural S curve, creating a posture that will cause discomfort.

Now that you understand the ergonomic challenges with frequent laptop use let's discuss some solutions.

Some Simple Solutions:
Here are my “Top 10 Laptop Ergonomic Tips to Prevent and Reduce Pain" to make laptop computing more comfortable in the office, at home and on the road.

1 - Use An External Ergonomic Keyboard
Attach a full size keyboard and place at a height for your shoulders to be relaxed. So many computer users are so used to working with tensed shoulders that they are not in touch with what it feels like for their shoulders to be relaxed.

To relax your shoulders drop your arms down by your side and let your shoulders relax. For deeper relaxation, take a deep breath as you raise them up and then let them drop slowly as you exhale.

Now bend your elbows keeping them close to your body. If your elbows are lower than then tops of the keys the keyboard is too high. When positioning your keyboard be sure your elbows are 1-2" above the top of the keys on your keyboard.

You may discover that your table height needs to be adjusted down or replaced before being able to adjust your keyboard correctly for your body. You may consider the purchase of an adjustable keyboard tray that is installed under your desk.

Please note that many of the ergonomic keyboards are shorter and will fit in many laptop bags. Proper placement of the keyboard will depend on the furniture being used while out of your office. In some cases it may be possible to place the keyboard on your lap for brief periods.

2 - Use An External Ergonomic Mouse
Pack an ergonomic mouse in your laptop bag and keep an extra one on your desk so you will always have an eternal mouse with you. This will allow you to keep your shoulders open and relaxed.

You may want to try a mouse that lets you work in a handshake position.

If you have a small frame, try a mouse with the click buttons located near the center of the body in front of the keyboard. These mice are larger so if you are traveling pack these in your luggage.

3 - Use A Docking Station and Full Size Monitor
In the office, use a docking station to easily move from portable to desktop use. Your laptop then can just be the CPU.

Many of the docking stations are high off the desk so do not place the monitor on top of the docking station otherwise the head and neck will bend back to view the screen causing neck and shoulder strain.

Move the docking station to the side and place the monitor directly in front of you.

Now you can adjust the monitor, keyboard and mouse to the correct height for your body. This will reduce stress on the body by placing the wrists, neck and shoulder in a more neutral position.

4 - Place Your Laptop on a Laptop Desk
Try a laptop desk that can be utilized in the lap for more comfort in airports, hotel room and client’s and branch offices.

There is plenty of room for an external mouse on the left or right and this helps to keep the shoulders in a more relaxed and open position creating decreasing the risk of pain.

The ventilation holes in the bottom of the laptop desk keep the laptop cool as it helps draw cool air in and allows the heat from the laptop to escape.

These desks can both be angled on the desk to firmly hold the laptop and position the screen at a more comfortable height for the eyes, neck and shoulders. Then a regular size keyboard can be used to keep the arms, wrists and hands comfortable too.

The lightweight, thin laptop desks stores easily in your laptop bag.

5 – Resting Sessions
With regular desktop computing use I usually recommend a resting every 60 minutes for 5-6 minutes. Resting is extra important while “laptoping" due to the extra strains on the body. Rest at least every 30 minutes for 5-6 minutes. It is best to get up from your chair and move around. This movement steps up your circulation and you may notice a slight change in your breathing, as computer users tend to breathe shallowly from the chest instead of the diaphragm.

Take short rests (microrests) every 5-10 minutes for about 10-15 seconds to increase the recovery time from laptop use. Just stop what you are doing, drop your hands by your side and take a few deep breaths. If you are not typing or mousing relax your arms away from your laptop as much as possible.

Allow yourself time during the day to rest your eyes, your mind and your body. Observe the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
This will help prevent eye fatigue and eyestrain.

6- Stretching Sessions
Further reduce laptop stress on the body by practicing simple stretches to keep the muscles and tendons flexible, allowing the circulation to bring blood and oxygen to the overused areas of the body.

If your muscles are tight you might want to massage your muscles and then stretch. Or you might even want to get a professional massage!

Simple stretches will release tension from your muscles and relax your body. You might even find yourself yawning. This is your body getting the oxygen it has been craving.

7 - Drink Plenty Of Water and Practice Deep Breathing

Water helps to keep the muscles and tendons hydrated and wash away the toxins that accumulate causing discomfort. You may even want to squeeze some lemon to help increase the cleansing of toxins. Plus it will make drinking water a lot more fun.

Practice deep breathing frequently to oxygenate your blood and energize you for the next work session. The laptop posture tends to reduce the breathing capabilities of the body because the diaphragm is crimped thus creating shallow breathing.

8 - Sit in a Chair that Supports Your Body
When using a laptop at home there may be a tendency to sit at the kitchen table, swivel chair, couch or bed. If that is the case, it is difficult to sit in a neutral and open posture that will support deep breathing and relaxed muscles.

Do your best to only use the laptop while seated in a comfortable chair that supports your body properly. Correct posture is the best way to prevent laptop pain and the chair is the most important component in a desktop setting and it is probably even more important with laptop use. Even while seated do your best to move around as much as possible.

9 - “Laptop-ing" on the Plane
When you are using your laptop on the plane realize that the
tray tables are often high and will cause you to raise and
tense your shoulder muscles. So you will be achy when you
get off the plane. If there is enough room to place your
laptop desk in your lap then great, otherwise you might want
to purchase an upgraded seat with more room!

When using your laptop on the plan, take frequent breaks and move your body around while seated. Laptop computing can be treacherous on a plane. Be aware that the tray table is probably not the correct ergonomic height for your laptop.

10 - Listen to Your Body
The more you rest, stretch, breath and drink water the better you will feel at the end of the day. Even with all the correct ergonomic products your body wants the personal care.

If your are feeling any fatigue, discomfort or pain stop whatever you are doing and evaluate what is going on. This is a warning sign from your body that things are not quite right. Perhaps it has been two hours since you gave your body some rest.

Resting will decrease the chance of fatigue and discomfort and will actually increase your productivity. Working for hours on end for days at a time can only go on so long.

You only have one body. Listen to it.
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