When I first started as a physiotherapist the main focus of office ergonomics and home computer use was how to optimise the posture of someone who had to sit at a desk for long periods. Typically this involved using a computer, since our whole lives now revolve around these magnificent devices, and the problem is that with each new software development that replaces an external function, more and more of our life can be managed from the same chair. When computers first arrived, we used them for calculations, word processing, and the occasional game. Then we started using them for accounting, presentations, photo editing, graphics, organisers. The biggest change came with the advent of the internet, as now our experience of the computer became “non-local”, meaning that it could be used for communication, education, encyclopaediation, and the richness and usefulness of the experience increased exponentially. Now, instead of going to the library and looking up books to find out the information needed for an exam or assignment or project, we just sit. Now, instead of writing a letter, walking to the post-office and posting a letter, we just sit. Now instead of going to a coffee shop, park or other public place to catch up, share photos or a meal – we just sit.
So we all know that sitting too long is bad for our health. It is bad because we are not moving, and therefore we are not using energy. This is compounded by our energy-dense diet, resulting in storing too much energy around our organs, waist, blood vessels etc. Not only this, but the pressure on our spine is absolutely NOT what it evolved to cope with. As a hunter-gatherer species, we are best suited to be constantly “on-the-move” with only brief periods of rest to eat and sleep. This sedentary life-style results in overstretched ligaments, weakened supporting muscles, excessive pressure on discs which in turn can protrude into the space our nerves should travel to our legs and arms, potentially causing pain, weakness and numbness.
Due to our increasing dependence on computers to facilitate our lives, this “sedentary disease” has become an epidemic. It is bad enough that we have had to endure the hours of sitting for interactions with our desk top PCs, but then someone went and invented the laptop! Now we can take our slave-master, our ball-and-chain with us when we are away from home, meaning that we can be dependent on it while travelling, in hotels, in trains, planes, parks, and elsewhere. The real problem with laptop PCs is that now instead of being able to achieve a measure of ergonomic improvement by fitting our screen height, chair height, foot rest, wrist rest, document holder and keyboard to a person’s own biometric specifications, NOW we are stuck with the screen and keyboard being attached to each other. This forces us to look down at the screen, or reach up to a keyboard. The former causes neck strain, the latter causes shoulder, elbow or wrist strain.
For years we went along miserably chained to our laptops getting more and more frequent headaches, neck problems, shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome etc but getting ever more productive. So long as we can find a Wi-Fi hotspot or plug into a LAN, we’re in business! These remained predominantly the tool of the executive, professional, or business person – until the rest of the world realised they could play World of Warcraft or Minecraft or whatever the latest craft was – while on the move. Or that their kids could do homework on the kitchen table.
Now here’s where the problem starts.
Kids are hard enough to convince to sit properly at the best of times. It’s inherently un-cool to sit with a straight back and good posture (and since I was the tallest kid in school my whole life, this was even more acute). Now add to this the load of doing homework, surfing the net, emailing, youtubing, minecrafting, snapchatting, instagramming, and all of the other essential parts of a modern whipper-snapper’s life and think of what that might be doing to their long term spinal development.
But it gets worse.
Computers are bad. Laptops are worse. Tablets are the devil.
Think of the postural issues with sitting at a computer too long. They are bad, but manageable with proper set up.
Think of the postural issues with using a lap top – they are unavoidably bad and use of these devices should be minimised, certainly regular breaks should be take and extension exercise, postural exercise, stretching or just any old position change would be better than craning one’s neck to look down at the screen.
Think of the postural issues with using a phone or tablet. The screen and keyboard are the same thing. Look at you husband, wife, child or friend right now looking at their phone or tablet and the angle of their neck, it is plain to see that increased reliance on these devices will cause far worse problems long term than using either computers or lap-tops – and these devices are already causing epidemic health problems in our community.
And now our very own Department of Education is rolling out education on tablet style devices for the most vulnerable part of our society – kids.
I’m not saying we can stop it. These devices are incredibly useful in motivating kids to learn, engage, retain, and socialise, but we need to be much more worried about how long they are spending on a tablet. Adults can cope with working at a laptop for an hour at a time, then need to break to straighten their back, and reverse the pressure on their discs, joints and nerves. Tablets cause much more extreme postural load and should only be used for 30 minutes before breaks and postural exercises are required.
We are already seeing a significant rise in the incidence of kids with neck pain and headaches.
The simplest postural exercises is to stand against a wall, pretend your head is a balloon and you spine is a string, flattening the lower, middle and upper backs against the wall while lengthening the spine as long as possible. This should be held for 60 seconds. This improves the endurance of the muscles that support the spine and helps reverse the forward-curve of the spine caused by using tablets.
If your child is complaining of neck pain, headaches or back pain, think about their screen time at school and at home, and think about whether they need to be assessed by a professional if these small changes don’t help.
By Ben Kewish
Hills Physiotherapy Clinics