Computers that really are a pain in the neck

21-12-2004

Laptop use may be causing serious long-term back and arm problems, says Sean Coughlan

Physiotherapists are warning that they are seeing an increasing number of people with back and arm problems from using laptops for too long - as more of us are using portable computers to work from home or when we're travelling.

Men have even been warned that placing warm machines on their laps for long periods may be making them sterile.

We've all seen people hunched awkwardly over laptops on train journeys or who have used a kitchen table as a temporary office - but there are warnings that over-use of laptops in uncomfortable positions can cause serious long-term damage.

Taking a computer home can mean more flexibility, saving on commuting and letting you work more convenient hours - but it also can mean spending hours bending your neck over a screen that's too low and using a keyboard designed for size rather than comfort.

Even though laptops have become standard issue office equipment, they are less likely to appear on the health and safety radar than other types. While computer users in offices will have the benefit of adjustable chairs and health assessments for the layout of keyboard and monitor, when people take the office laptop home they are unlikely to have such protection.

"Laptops can be a nightmare," says Jacqui Smith, chairman of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Occupational Health and Ergonomics.

"They're really useful, light, flexible and convenient. But people tend to use them in poor postural positions. And it's really not a good idea for prolonged use. Companies have been issuing laptops left, right and centre, as a way of keeping people accessible. But now they're realising the problems.

"There is a clear association with the rise in laptop use and the rise in problems," which she says can affect people's back, neck, shoulders, arms and hands. And such disorders can become chronic unless people change their computer habits.

Ms Smith says the danger signs are clearly visible. For example, there are sales representatives, who after long hours of driving, will be "twisted and hunched" over a laptop in the service station car park, with a mobile phone wedged under the chin.

Because such problems build up over time, she says that people can underestimate the ill-effects of misusing computers. It might not seem much of a risk to be sitting behind a laptop or a PC, but the level of back problems among office workers is similar to people working in heavy carrying jobs.

For people working at home who regularly use laptops, Ms Smith says that there are ways to improve the ergonomics, such as getting a stand to make the height adjustable and plugging in a separate keyboard. Ms Smith warns that they shouldn't be used without a break for more than 20 minutes, too.

The scale of work-related back strains and repetitive-strain injuries (RSI) was emphasised by the TUC recently, as these two problems were identified, along with stress, as the most common workplace health hazards. The survey reported that 56% of union safety representatives had colleagues with stress problems, 37% worked in places affected by RSI and just under a third had colleagues with work-related back problems.

The survey also showed that a large majority of organisations were carrying out their legal obligations to have risk assessments - although there were a few areas, such as local government, in which compliance was more patchy.

Mathew Cousins, former president of the British Osteopathic Association, says that there does seem to be a general level of awareness about the risks in using a PC at work, but people haven't yet caught up with the problems that could be attached to misusing laptops.

And he says the type of problems that osteopaths were seeing a few years ago from overusing desktop computers are now starting to appear from laptops - affecting the upper back and shoulders, forearms and wrists. The convenience and portability of a laptop can add to the problems, he says, with stressed-out workers feeling that they can't stop working.

"They're using them at home in the evenings - and then the moment they get on the train in the morning, they take out their laptops and start work ing again." The way that too many of us use laptops has been described as the Tyrannosaurus Rex position, with big bodies hunched over a tiny machine, with cramped arms paddling away at a keyboard.

And Jason Devereux, from the University of Surrey's Robens Centre for Health Ergonomics, who has led research into the health impact of computer use, says that the contorted positions in which people use laptops would look ridiculous in any other context.

His research has focused particularly on the added ingredient of stress, which he says aggravates the adverse effects. If people are feeling overwhelmed by their work and unable to cope with the pressure, they are more likely to develop the type of pains associated with the overuse of computers.

So the employee who is under excessive pressure to meet a deadline and who sits up all night hunched over the laptop is more vulnerable to injury.

And the University of Surrey research suggests that there are millions of workers facing this dangerous combi nation of stress and back strains. "Managers don't see it as a problem until staff go absent and then it's too late," says Dr Devereux.

Psychologist Lance Workman, at Bath Spa University College, says the growing use of laptops is part of the blurring of the boundary between work and home, and that people need to be able to have recovery time, so they won't be answering emails at midnight.

Tim Hutchful, secretary of the British Chiropractic Association, says that laptops were never designed to be used as a substitute for a full desktop computer lay-out. And the fact that they are being used as full-time work machines is storing up problems. "It's not laptops that are the problem, but how they're being used," he says.

If aches and pains from computer overuse are allowed to get worse, it can lead to debilitating problems, he says. And as a chiropractor he says he has seen people so badly affected that they couldn't work for a couple of years and "couldn't even lift a kettle".

There's no prospect that laptops will be used any less frequently, not least because so many of us want to use them owing to the independence they give us over where and when we can work. The challenge will be whether, when we can work at any hour, we're also able to switch off.

The Guardian

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