Bad Posture During Computer Use Leads to Back Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It's no secret that staring into a computer screen for too long can lead to a stiff neck or back pain. Many of us instinctively lean forward to get a closer look at laptop or tablet, without being fully aware of how bad our posture is or what it’s doing to our spines.

Researchers at San Francisco State University say this “head-forward position” compresses the neck and can lead to fatigue, headaches, poor concentration and muscle tension. And it takes less than a minute for the symptoms to start.

"When your posture is tall and erect, the muscles of your back can easily support the weight of your head and neck -- as much as 12 pounds," says Erik Peper, PhD, a Professor of Holistic Health at San Francisco State University.

"But when your head juts forward at a 45-degree angle, your neck acts like a fulcrum, like a long lever lifting a heavy object. Now the muscle weight of your head and neck is the equivalent of about 45 pounds. It is not surprising people get stiff necks and shoulder and back pain."

Peper and his colleagues tested the effects of head and neck position in a recent study published in the journal Biofeedback.

SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

First, they asked 87 students to sit upright with their heads properly aligned on their necks and asked them to turn their heads. Then the students were asked to "scrunch" their necks and jut their heads forward. Ninety-two percent reported being able to turn their heads much farther when they were not scrunching.

In a second test, 125 students scrunched their necks for 30 seconds. Afterwards, 98 percent reported some level of pain in their head, neck or eyes.

“Most participants were totally surprised that 30 seconds of neck scrunching would rapidly increase symptoms and induce discomfort. It provided motivation to identify situations that evoked neck scrunching and avoid those situations or change the ergonomics,” Peper said.  

What can you do to prevent yourself from scrunching? Two easy solutions would be to increase the font size on your computer screen or get a pair of computer reading glasses. You can also make sure your computer screen is at eye level, which will reduce the temptation to lean forward.

If you suffer from headaches or neck and backaches from computer work, check your posture and make sure you are sitting upright, with your head aligned on top of your neck.

"You can do something about this poor posture very quickly," says Peper, who recommends people test themselves by scrunching forward and try rotating their head. Until they do that, many have no idea how bad posture contributes to back and neck pain.

"You can exaggerate the position and experience the symptoms. Then when you find yourself doing it, you can become aware and stop," he said.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Nevada Las Vegas found that 60 percent of students have persistent pain in their neck and shoulders -- often caused by slouching or bending to watch their iPads or tablets. Women were twice as likely as men to experience neck and shoulder pain during tablet use.

Women Most at Risk for ‘iPad Neck’

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you have neck and shoulder pain and regularly use an iPad or tablet device, there’s a good chance the two are connected. Especially if you’re a young woman.

A recent study of over 400 university students, alumni and staff found that 60 percent have persistent pain in the neck and upper shoulders – often caused by slouching or bending to watch their iPads or tablet computers. Over two-thirds (68%) said they experienced symptoms while using their tablets.

"Such high prevalence of neck and shoulder symptoms, especially among the younger populations, presents a substantial burden to society," said lead author Szu-Ping Lee, PhD, a physical therapy professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. His study was published last week in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.

The top risk factor for “iPad neck” was surprising. Women were twice as likely as men to experience neck and shoulder pain during tablet use.

“Our study revealed that females and individuals with current musculoskeletal symptoms were more likely to be at risk for neck and shoulder symptoms,” Lee wrote.

“Certain postures during use were also identified as important risk factors, specifically sitting without back support and with the tablet in lap were significantly associated with symptoms during use.”

UNLV IMAGE

UNLV IMAGE

The most frequently reported symptoms were stiffness, soreness or aching pain in the neck, upper back, shoulder, arms, hands or head. Most of those surveyed (55%) reported moderate discomfort, but 10 percent said their symptoms were severe and 15 percent said it affected their sleep. Less than half (46%) said they stopped using the devices when they felt discomfort.

Lee says the findings concern him, especially given the growing popularity of tablets, e-book readers, and other devices for personal, school and business purposes. At PNN, we know that about 10 percent of our readers use iPads or tablets.

Almost half of the tablet users surveyed use their devices for three or more hours each day. Flexing the neck forward for long periods of time puts pressure on your spine, causing neck and shoulder pain. Sedentary behavior and bad posture while reading are also contributing factors.

Researchers say many students sit cross-legged on the floor when studying on their tablets. Interestingly, women were far more likely (77%) to use their tablets while sitting on the floor than men (23%).

Lee offered these tips to avoid iPad neck:

  • Sit in a chair with back support.
  • Use a posture reminder device -- small, wearable devices that beep to alert you when you're slouching.
  • Place your iPad on a stand (rather than a flat surface) and attach a keyboard to achieve a more upright posture.
  • Exercise to strengthen your neck and shoulder muscles.

"Using these electronic devices is becoming a part of our modern lives," Lee said. "In order to reduce the risk of developing long-term neck and shoulder problems, we need to think about how technology like tablet computer affects human ergonomics and posture."