The Downside of Mobility: Injury: Page 2

Posted August 22, 2008

Amy Mayer

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Tips for on-the-go laptop use

Let's face it though, sometimes you're going to use the laptop at your favorite coffee shop or in an airport gate area—even if, strictly speaking, you don't have to. Hegeman has some recommendations for making the best of an imperfect situation.

"The neck muscles are bigger and can handle more strain," she says. "I would definitely choose to take care of your hands." That means don't put the computer up on a high table top. Rather, consider using it actually on your lap "so the wrist and hand angles can be appropriate." But still be mindful of your posture and choose straight chairs rather than couches or easy chairs. And don't forget those breaks—in addition to every 20-30 minutes, Hegeman recommends getting up for five minutes every hour or two.

"Go get that second cup of coffee—or get a glass of water or juice or something healthy for your body," she says. 

Be mindful of what you're using your computer for, though, too. If you're primarily reading rather than typing, a better head-neck position will trump the hands.

Campus casualties

Karen Jacobs, a former president of the American Occupational Therapy Association and a clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University's Sargent College, is studying the impact of notebook computer use on campus.

"College students are our next generation of workers and they are also a cohort of people who have had their whole lives with computers," she says. Like Bryck and Hegeman, Jacobs observed growing complaints about aches and pains associated with notebook computer use and conducted studies to understand it better.

"University students are complaining about discomfort and, in two studies, attributed it to the way they used notebook computers," she says.

She's now carried out three studies at Boston University involving some 400 students in all. She's looked at how well various interventions such as risers (to elevate the laptop), adjustable chairs, external input devices, and training worked to curb the potential problems. Research results are pending publication, but she says conceptually the students fully embraced making small, generally inexpensive changes.

"No one wants to have aches and pains," she says. "We want to encourage students to work in comfort."

For more tips and information about proper ergonomics, both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the federal government and Cornell University offer workplace checklists and other resources. Stretch Break, a software package that prompts you to stretch at regular intervals and provides music and animations along with the reminder, is available for purchase. You can test it with a free 10-day trial first. Jacobs has worked with the developers to offer a free kids' version of the software for K-12 students and their schools.

If laptops and carpal tunnel syndrome are the scourge of this generation, Hegeman fears that new devices will only spur users into addition preventable injuries as work migrates from laptops to even smaller keyboards and screens. Already hand therapists are talking about "BlackBerry thumb," she says. "It is a problem, absolutely."

Amy Mayer is a freelance writer and independent radio producer based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Read and listen to her work at her website.

This article was first published on WiFiPlanet.com.

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