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Ergonomics 101: How to Safely Use a Laptop Anywhere

Wednesday, September 10, 2008
By Anne Kramer

As scores of college students return to campus, they head back with more than just books in hand. Many carry laptops with them, not only back to the dorms, but also to class every day. But laptops, unlike desktops, create more risk for injuries, because their components are not adjustable and because they are often carried from place to place.

Because a laptop’s keyboard and monitor are connected, it is often impossible to position both the keyboard and the screen in the optimum positions. Generally this results in either poor head and neck posture, as the user tilts the head down to look at the screen, or in improper hand and wrist positioning, as the user types. Several options are available , especially if the laptop will frequently be used at a desk.

  • A laptop stand elevates the computer screen to proper viewing height, reducing movement of the head and neck.

  • Attaching a regular keyboard and mouse, either through the USB or a wireless device, allows the user the flexibility of adjustable parts, and makes it easier to maintain proper hand and wrist posture for typing.

  • A comfortable, adjustable chair will encourage proper posture. A lumbar cushion and seat cushion can be added to most dorm furniture.

The appeal of a laptop, however, is that it need not be used only at a desk. It can be taken to class, on an airplane, or to the local coffee shop. This portability does create an ergonomic dilemma: how to transport that laptop—and all the accessories like extra battery packs--without causing stress injuries.

  • If the laptop and its accessories weigh more than ten pounds, a rolling bag would be ideal, because it removes the weight from the back and shoulders.

  • Many backpacks are designed specifically for carrying laptops, and these are most practical for cross-campus travel. It is best to use one that has wide, padded straps and a sturdy hip belt. Both these features help distribute weight more evenly.

  • If a bag with a single shoulder strap or a briefcase is the only option, periodically switching hands or shoulders will minimize injuries.

  • Other items like binders and books are best kept in a separate bag. This will help to balance the load.

Yet the most popular destination for the laptop doesn’t require leaving the dorm. What college student can resist the temptation of working in bed? And what college student hasn’t experienced the resulting stiffness from slouching over the computer screen? Although it is always preferable to work in a chair with proper back support, it is possible to maintain proper posture in bed.

  • Leaning against a wall or headboard will give proper back support. A lumbar cushion will further encourage proper posture.

  • The laptop should always remain directly in front of the user, to prevent turning the head and neck.

  • Placing a pillow under the knees provides further support, but do not place the laptop itself on a pillow or soft surface, as this could cause the computer to overheat. A mobile lap desk makes an effective barrier between your lap and the bottom of the laptop.
College is already stressful enough, without the addition of avoidable injuries. These simple measures will protect students from stress injuries from shoulder and back pain to carpal tunnel syndrome.

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