May 31, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Is your laptop a pain in the neck?

When Ram Viswanadha began using a laptop at work, he decided to shelve his clunky old desktop PC for good. The notebook's size, speed and memory blew the older computer away.

What the 30-year-old Silicon Valley software engineer didn't bargain for was a severe case of repetitive strain injury--and a three-month disability leave--from hunching over his laptop day in and day out for four years.

Viswanadha's situation is a worst-case scenario in workplace ergonomics, but stories like his are becoming more common, according to doctors and ergonomic experts across the country. As people ditch desktop computers to work full time on laptops, doctors expect to see a lot more pains, strains and injuries among white collar workers.

News.context

What's new:
Notebook PCs may be convenient, but they're also an ergonomic nightmare. And more and more people are discovering that the hard way.

Bottom line:
The good news is that laptop-related repetitive stress injuries are avoidable. Peripherals such as computer mice and separate keyboards can prevent some of the problems, as can lifestyle choices and work habits.

More stories on repetitive stress injury

"When you look at the design, laptops were never (meant) as a replacement for a desktop computer," said Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University. "The idea was portability for occasional use. It was never intended to be a machine you would work at for eight hours a day, 52 weeks a year."

More than 9,200 nongovernment workers reported missing a day or more of work because of typing and keyboarding-related injuries in 2003, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ninety-two percent of those cases were associated with worker motion or position, the bureau said. More than a third those workers missed over a month of work because of their injuries.

For notebook computer use, such statistical information on injuries is scarce, but doctors report a steady stream of new patients who've overdone it on the machines. That's not surprising given the boom in laptop sales. Nearly 49 million notebooks were sold in 2004 worldwide, almost double the number sold in 2000, according to market researcher IDC. The devices account for more than a quarter of the computer market, and are set to surpass desktop sales in the United States by 2008, IDC said.

The main problem with laptops is that the screen and keyboard are so close together. Without the aid of peripherals, laptop users have two choices, neither of which would win them any points for posture. They can cramp their neck down to view the monitor or they can elevate the machine to eye level, which can wreak havoc on shoulders and arms.

And the wrists lose regardless, because the keyboard is so small, leading to awkward hand positioning.

"These are all recipes for disaster for your body, and your musculoskeletal system especially," said Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon in Havertown, Penn., a Philadelphia suburb.

Laptops can cause other physical woes. People have been burned by the heat the machines generate. The temperature issue can also cause fertility problems in men who place the machines on their laps for prolonged periods. Frequent travelers can put strain on backs, hands and shoulders by lugging a laptop around.

For Viswanadha, neck strain was the root of injury. His doctors said spending so much time on the laptop had shortened his neck muscles,

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6 comments

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ThinkPad keyboard/eraser-head saved my career
In contrast to the article, my major repetitive strain injury was caused by deskop keyboards and especially the mouse. Today, I exclusively use the IBM ThinkPad thanks to its low key deflection, and dual-handed touch pad and eraser-head options. In fact, I have a second ThinkPad keyboard at a different height. This allows me to vary my hand usage and reduce repetitive motions.

I was only 26 when my problems began and the doctors initially thought it was no big deal. In the end, it took several years of struggling, pain, various treatments, and a over a year unpaid off work before I was able to resume, and I still have a permanent partial disability. The CA worker's compensation rules completely failed me by sticking me with an employer-designated doctor who did not immediately send me on temporary disability leave. The bottom line is that this is an infant field and doctors today still don't know how to treat these types of soft tissue injuries, so aggressively, and I mean AGGRESSIVELY, PROTECT YOURSELF. I wish someone had scared me like this when I was younger...

If you're a young tech worker, remember:

1. The senior workers and managers have no understanding of or sympathy for these problems because they haven't been using computers nearly as much early in their life and are likely to never develop these problems. This is truly our generation's burden.
2. Likewise, the corporate ergonomics people often try to apply one-size-fits all guidelines rather than listening and truly figuring out your individual problem.
3. The medical establishment still has no clue how to treat soft tissue injuries, so your only recourse is not to get injured in the first place. BE AGGRESSIVE and PROTECT YOURSELF. Anything less may make a temporary discomfort into a chronic, permanent disability.
4. Speech recognition still doesn't work, esp. for any real technical work.
5. Above all, PRE-DESIGNATE your own doctor BEFORE you report any workplace injury - otherwise, due to the worker's compensation laws, you will be stuck with the company's designated doctors who are operating under a conflict of interest.

Good luck!
Posted by echelonbob (35 comments )
Reply Link Flag
ThinkPad keyboard/eraser-head saved my career
In contrast to the article, my major repetitive strain injury was caused by deskop keyboards and especially the mouse. Today, I exclusively use the IBM ThinkPad thanks to its low key deflection, and dual-handed touch pad and eraser-head options. In fact, I have a second ThinkPad keyboard at a different height. This allows me to vary my hand usage and reduce repetitive motions.

I was only 26 when my problems began and the doctors initially thought it was no big deal. In the end, it took several years of struggling, pain, various treatments, and a over a year unpaid off work before I was able to resume, and I still have a permanent partial disability. The CA worker's compensation rules completely failed me by sticking me with an employer-designated doctor who did not immediately send me on temporary disability leave. The bottom line is that this is an infant field and doctors today still don't know how to treat these types of soft tissue injuries, so aggressively, and I mean AGGRESSIVELY, PROTECT YOURSELF. I wish someone had scared me like this when I was younger...

If you're a young tech worker, remember:

1. The senior workers and managers have no understanding of or sympathy for these problems because they haven't been using computers nearly as much early in their life and are likely to never develop these problems. This is truly our generation's burden.
2. Likewise, the corporate ergonomics people often try to apply one-size-fits all guidelines rather than listening and truly figuring out your individual problem.
3. The medical establishment still has no clue how to treat soft tissue injuries, so your only recourse is not to get injured in the first place. BE AGGRESSIVE and PROTECT YOURSELF. Anything less may make a temporary discomfort into a chronic, permanent disability.
4. Speech recognition still doesn't work, esp. for any real technical work.
5. Above all, PRE-DESIGNATE your own doctor BEFORE you report any workplace injury - otherwise, due to the worker's compensation laws, you will be stuck with the company's designated doctors who are operating under a conflict of interest.

Good luck!
Posted by echelonbob (35 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Best thing is
Pay attention to your comfort. If you experience pain, even if it's not severe, make a note of it & see if it recurs.

A couple of years ago, I started to get head aches, that I'd not had before. Turned out my glasses had small (progressive) lenses & I couldn't deal with scrolling text for long periods - I ended up looking through the wrong part of the lense. I got larger glasses - the lenses were almost twice the size - problem solved !

Laptops - I just spent $70 for an external keyboard & wireless mouse and can comfotably use my laptop for long periods - I also used my own contoured keyboard with my desktop PC at work. It doesn't take much (for most of us) to avoid injuries - this ain't The Deadliest Catch, people :-)

But what was the guy thinking, when he said "When you look at the design, laptops were never (meant) as a replacement for a desktop computer,". If you fly a great deal, on business, and if you have to work from home, or are on call alot, many companies will provide 1 laptop, instead of 2 or 3 different PCs. Whether the "expert" in the article likes it or not, people ARE using laptops instead of desktop PC's.

P.S. Travelling & on call, aren't hotels with broadband IN THE ROOM, just awesome !!!
Posted by (409 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Best thing is
Pay attention to your comfort. If you experience pain, even if it's not severe, make a note of it & see if it recurs.

A couple of years ago, I started to get head aches, that I'd not had before. Turned out my glasses had small (progressive) lenses & I couldn't deal with scrolling text for long periods - I ended up looking through the wrong part of the lense. I got larger glasses - the lenses were almost twice the size - problem solved !

Laptops - I just spent $70 for an external keyboard & wireless mouse and can comfotably use my laptop for long periods - I also used my own contoured keyboard with my desktop PC at work. It doesn't take much (for most of us) to avoid injuries - this ain't The Deadliest Catch, people :-)

But what was the guy thinking, when he said "When you look at the design, laptops were never (meant) as a replacement for a desktop computer,". If you fly a great deal, on business, and if you have to work from home, or are on call alot, many companies will provide 1 laptop, instead of 2 or 3 different PCs. Whether the "expert" in the article likes it or not, people ARE using laptops instead of desktop PC's.

P.S. Travelling & on call, aren't hotels with broadband IN THE ROOM, just awesome !!!
Posted by (409 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Save Your Money
With a Keynamics Laptop Stand, you can "functionally" separate the screen from the keyboard, creating the ideal ergonomic set up. You don't need to purchase a separate keyboard or monitor. You can also lean back and recline in your chair to type.
Posted by gregbright (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Save Your Money
With a Keynamics Laptop Stand, you can "functionally" separate the screen from the keyboard, creating the ideal ergonomic set up. You don't need to purchase a separate keyboard or monitor. You can also lean back and recline in your chair to type.
Posted by gregbright (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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