Using a tablet computer can be a pain in the neck—literally. The phenomenon is so well recognized, it even has a name: iPad neck or, generically, tablet neck.
Now, a study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science has put some numbers behind it. It surveyed a university population (mostly students but also faculty, staff, and alumni) about their use of such devices, including what postures they maintained during use, how long they typically used them, and whether they had neck and shoulder symptoms during use.
Of 315 people who had a tablet, 68 percent reported experiencing musculoskeletal pain during use, the most frequent complaints being neck symptoms (85 percent), followed by back and shoulder symptoms (65 percent). Stiffness, soreness, and aches and pain were most commonly reported, with 55 percent describing the symptoms as moderate and 10 percent indicating they were severe. For 15 percent, the symptoms interfered with sleep. Yet fewer than half responded that they would stop using the device if they had symptoms.
Interestingly, the amount of time spent using the devices was not a major factor. What mattered most was posture: Sitting without proper back support (which often leads to slumping), holding the device in the lap, and placing the device flat on a desk surface were associated with the most musculoskeletal symptoms. Using the tablets while lying on the side or back also increased risk.
Women—who tend to have more neck and shoulder problems in general—were about twice as likely to report discomfort as men (70 versus 30 percent) from tablet use, possibly due to gender differencesin body proportions and biomechanics.
In particular, keeping the neck flexed forward puts more load on the upper region of the spine (cervical spine), which can then strain the neck extensors, the muscles running down the back of the neck into the shoulders. Using mobile electronic devices—tablets and cell phones—can be even worse than using desktop computers, since they’re typically held low down. According to a 2014 study in Surgical Technology International, computer modeling showed that flexing the neck at a 45-degree angle puts 49 pounds of pressure on the cervical spine; tilt the neck 60 degrees and the force is equivalent to about 60 pounds.
Remedies for tablet neck
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you experience tablet neck (or other device-related musculoskeletal aches and pain).
- Sit with a back support, so that your lumbar area can be in a “neutral” position, as described at Correct Sitting Posture: Office. Another good resource is from OSHA at Computer Workstations eTool. Sitting on a regularbackless chair or bench or on the floor encourages slouching and improper neck angle. (Note that ergonomic “kneeling” chairs are designed to have a forward tilting position without the need for a back rest.)
- Hold your tablet (or phone) in a position in which you don’t have to bend your neck excessively up or down—and, in any case, no more than 30 to 45 degrees. That means not keeping the device flat on atable or desk or on your lap. (Same goes for a laptop computer, despite its name.) When you bend your neck, tuck your chin and bend from the base of your skull, not from your lower neck.
- For prolonged use, consider using a stand (many models are available on the Internet, for about $15 and up) and an external keyboard. Some tablet cases have built-in stands. There are even mount holders for mobile phones to keep them in an upright position.
- Shift your position frequently—every 15 minutes or so. And get up and move around at least every hour. You can set a timer or use an app as a reminder. You can also alternate between sitting and standing.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.