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I can officially blame my laptop for my Slouching!

With BBC’s Panorama this week pointing to the supposed dangers of wi-fi technology, back experts are pointing to a much more immediate danger from laptop computers. They say that they are creating a nation of slouch potatoes.

While most British scientists believe that the risk of harm from wireless technology is theoretical, the risk laptops pose to our backs, shoulders and necks as we lean over them on the train, at home and at work is very real. Because they encourage bad posture, they’re causing an epidemic of musculoskeletal problems.

It’s all being driven by plummeting laptop prices and the increasing availability of wireless technology. Sales of portable computers increased by more than 25 per cent last year and they already outstrip desktop computer sales, according to PC World.

Michael Durtnall, a leading chiropractor, is one of a growing band of back-care specialists who say that something has to be done before children and young adults do irretrievable damage to their joints. He estimates that about 80 per cent of the patients at his three London clinics – mainly students, office workers and City types – have chronic nerve pain as a result of poor posture induced by working on a laptop. A recent British Chiropractic Association survey indicated that 50 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds were suffering from back pain, compared with 18 per cent three years ago. Durtnall believes the simultaneous rise of the laptop is no coincidence.

“Mothers bring in their 12-year-old daughters suffering back pain and when they arrive I can see their slumped posture straight away. I also see many people in their twenties and thirties with early dowager’s hump, a rounding at the base of the neck after only a few years of looking down at a small screen while sitting slumped on a chair for long periods,” he says.

Rishi Loatey, a chiropractor from Wembley, North London, says he is seeing more patients whose back and neck pain arises from the use of laptops at home, and in cars and trains, as well as being stuck in front of a screen at work.

It’s not only chiropractors who are worried. Nicola Hunter, a physiotherapist and occupational health expert, is concerned by the RSI-type hand and arm pain that is easily induced by resting your wrists against the edge of a laptop for long periods. “There’s evidence that it stops the nerves and tendons moving as they normally would, and this can cause nerve injury,” she says. “In my clinic I’ve seen many people with persistent pins and needles in their hands as a result of laptop use.”

The problem is largely unacknowledged by statutory bodies or in research because it has arisen so quickly. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) last issued guidance on computer use in 2003, when laptop concerns were dealt with briefly. The HSE published in 2000 one of the few research studies on the safety of laptop computers, which pointed out that the main problem with laptops is one of ergonomics: the lack of physical distance between screen and keyboard means that neither can be positioned comfortably. The HSE pointed out that research suggested that this gave rise to “pronounced head tilt and neck flexion” among users, recommending that manufacturers provide a means of separating screen from keyboard.

But the basic design of laptops has remained unchanged, and studies into the effects of prolonged laptop use are scarce. There have, however, been isolated studies. A survey of computer users in the journal Applied Ergonomics this month indicated that laptop keyboards are more uncomfortable to use and more likely to induce a strained arm position. And a paper this week in The Lancet medical journal called for a better understanding of repetitive strain injury, commonly caused by bad computer posture.

Dr Keith Palmer, from the Medical Research Council Environmental Epidemiology Unit, says: “You’ll find that laptops often don’t comply with the work regulations for desktop computers. It seems a bit of an omission. There are obvious theoretical reasons why using a laptop might be more problematic, such as working in a cramped position.” Durtnall believes that he knows exactly what’s happening; he has seen it in the dozens of X-rays he’s taken of the necks of regular laptop users. “You can see the signs of joint degeneration,” he says. “The facet joints between the vertebrae become clamped together. Because your neck is tensed and held still in an awkward position for such long periods, you don’t get enough lubricating fluid between the joints, and the result is that you get deposits of calcium, which form new bone.”

So what’s to be done? The HSE says it has no plans to examine laptop use and the postural effects in more depth. According to Matthew Birtles, a senior ergonomist at the HSE’s scientific agency, the most important thing is to follow the current advice for all computers: take regular breaks and get up and stretch.

“I’d say that with a laptop your breaks should be more frequent than a desktop computer, say a minute every quarter of an hour,” he says. “There are obvious risks about laptops not being set up correctly, and it does have to be about self-regulation.”

Laptop do’s and don’ts

If you’re using the laptop at a desk, use a docking station, which lets you link your machine to an external screen and keyboard. If you can, use an external mouse with your laptop. This means that arms and shoulders will be less tense. Buy an external keyboard. This means that you can raise your laptop screen to the right level (your head should be slightly inclined down) and type comfortably. Buy a portable laptop stand, which allows you to raise your screen to a higher level when working on an external keyboard. Your eyes should roughly be at the same level as the top of the screen. One or two laptops do have height adjustments for their screens. If you’re buying a laptop, ask about all the options. A lighter laptop will put less pressure on your legs, and a well-spaced keyboard (without numeric pad) may free your arms more. Online Ergonomics produces a range of goods that will help you to use your laptop more safely. Visit www.

‘I was always looking down’ Jennifer Malcolm, 32, is a press officer and newsletter writer

While working for an environmental charity, Malcolm was at a keyboard all day and worked on a laptop at home in the evening. Then, after a few weeks of working hard to meet a deadline, her hand and wrist seized up.

“It was very sudden,” she says. “My hand had felt a bit twingey for a week before, but then it just became an immobile claw. It was a bit of a joke in the office at first, but in the end I had to take six weeks off. I saw a chiropractor and a physiotherapist and, with their treatment, it improved. But I’ve had to be careful ever since and I still see a chiropractor to make sure that I keep mobile.”

She’s convinced that it was using the laptop at home that had precipitated the trouble and had also caused the growing pains she had in her shoulders and neck, which her physiotherapist also treated. “I think the biggest problem was my posture. I was permanently looking down at the screen and I realise that I should have my head up more.

“Now I try not to use the laptop so much, the mouse is fiddly, and your hands are so close together. It’s inevitable that you become tense and hunched up.”

Courtesy (via digg)

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