Students are using laptop computers more in the classroom and in their free time to stay connected, but this jump doesn't come without consequences: Kids, teens and young adults are consequently complaining of musculoskeletal discomfort — including neck, back and shoulder pain.
According to a new study conducted by researchers at Boston University about laptop use and discomfort levels published in the journal Ergonomics earlier this month, more than 50 percent of university students said they already experience pain attributed to the computer. Meanwhile, one in seven said they experienced pain after working on a computer for just one hour.
If about 18 million students were enrolled in undergraduate education at universities in the fall of 2008 — when part of the study was initially conducted — and one in seven students already experience pain, this means there’s the potential for 2.52 million students to develop musculoskeletal discomfort before they even enter the workforce, the study suggests.
"Computer-related discomfort in childhood and adolescence is of particular concern as the musculoskeletal system and posture are still developing," said Karen Jacobs, the study's lead author and an occupational therapist at Boston University.
"Young children worldwide are starting to complain now more than ever of musculoskeletal discomfort ... As kids embrace technology at a young age, parents need to not only monitor technology use but instill best-practices so they are stretching and exercising certain muscles to prevent physical problems in the future," said Jacobs, who is also the former president of the American Occupational Therapy Association and current chair of Ergonomics for Children and Educational Environment.
In 2009, The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) accounted for 29 percent of all workplace injuries and illnesses requiring time away from work in 2008. Since years of tech use can compound certain physical ailments, this could potentially cause serious implications for the future health of youth.
One of the many reasons why kids, teens and adults feel discomfort in various parts of their body while using technology is because workstations aren't set up properly, according to Jacobs.
Even though laptops have track pads, Jacobs recommends using external computer mice instead.
"When a person uses the track pad it places them in an awkward position because it positions their arm crossing over the body, rather than relaxed at their side," Jacobs said. "Depending on how a person holds their hand (with one to three fingers) on the track pad, a finger's tendons can be constantly extended, which can place a strain on muscles and joints. So over an extended period of time, discomfort in shoulders, arms, wrists and fingers can develop."
In addition, most people rest their wrist on the edge of the notebook computer to use the touch pad. This is called contact stress and can place pressure on wrist muscles, nerves and blood vessels.
"Laptops are just poorly designed for work space," Jacobs said. "Adding accessories such as a mouse, keyboard and laptop riser will really help the user experience and your body."
However, the computer mouse is often to blame for an increased risk of upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which is characterized by nerve pressure that causes numbness, tingling, weakness, or muscle damage in the hand and fingers.
Elevated carpal tunnel pressure while using a mouse is a result of both wrist extension and excessive fingertip force applied to press the button and grip the sides of the mouse. A lot of stress is also put on the forearm, especially when the external mouse is used incorrectly.
In addition to using an external mouse with a laptop, Jacobs said the mouse should rest at elbow height and be positioned next to the keyboard, not sitting far off to the side.
If a computer monitor is not positioned correctly, it can also lead to numerous types of chronic injury for users.
Computer monitors are often positioned too low for users, which may bring about a downward eye glaze, an increased neck angle and forward bending of the upper back. With the neck and upper back in this position, stress on the spine significantly increases. This position also brings about fatigue much earlier in the workday.
"We often move forward on the computer to better see the screen, but we want to open up our body more and keep it aligned," Jacobs said.
Monitors should also be positioned directly in front at an arm's length away and perpendicular to a window to avoid glare on the screen. Meanwhile, large-size monitors that have bigger icons and symbols keep eyes at the proper angle and give a more erect body posture.
Some research suggests that kids and adults who are more active are less likely to suffer from pain due to technology use than those who do not get regular exercise, said Robin Gillespie, an ergonomist and consultant at RM Consulting.
"There is a trend that shows people who are more physically active will develop fewer musculoskeletal discomfort issues," Gillespie said of her research. "This is true for both adults and kids."
Similarly, Jacobs believes that tech users should think of themselves like athletes each time they use a computer or tech device.
"A soccer player would never go on the field without warming up or cooling down," Jacobs told TechNewsDaily. "People need to approach technology in the same way."
Getting up from a computer and walking around every 20 to 30 minutes is a good start, but people should also be doing daily stretches to prevent these physical complications.
To stretch out your wrists and prevent ailments such as carpal tunnel and tendinitis, Jacobs advises to place palms together — fingers pointed toward the ceiling — and push the heels of the hands toward the floor and hold for 15 seconds. Afterward, place palms together with fingers pointed toward the floor and push the heels of the hands toward the ceiling.
To stretch the neck, Jacob suggests tilting your head to left and holding it for 15 seconds, and then to the right for the same amount of time. She also advises different stretches for the upper back, lower back and hands.
A list of other stretches, as well as yoga poses that can be done at work, can be found on Jacobs' blog site.
Gillespie also noted that there are innovative tech tools to help remind people to get up from the computer and perform certain stretches. For example, Remedy Interactive's RSIGuard has desktop injury prevention software that encourages you to take workday breaks and do stretches.
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