DEAR DOCTOR K: I love my tablet computer, but my neck hurts every time I use it. Any suggestions?
DEAR READER: Using a tablet computer shouldn't be a pain in the neck, but for all too many people, it is. Why? Widely popular tablets such as the iPad, Nook, Kindle Fire, Xoom and others are so light and easy to handle that you can hold one on your lap or in your hand. That can put you in a position that's bad for your neck, shoulders and back. But simply adjusting your viewing angle should provide relief.
Dr. Jack Dennerlein and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health looked into the problem. Using an infrared 3-D motion analysis system, they tracked how different tablet positions affect the body.
Specifically, they looked at what happened to a person's neck. Your neck houses the top of your spine, which is a stack of small bones called cervical vertebrae. Your neck bones and muscles prefer it when your spine is straight -- as when you are standing with your head erect. Your neck muscles get strained when your neck has to bend forward and downward.
This is what the research team found: When you are working with a tablet held on the lap or placed flat on a table, your neck has to bend much more to see the tablet screen -- compared with working with a desktop or notebook computer. This can cause strain and even injuries to muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments and spinal discs.
However, when you view a tablet that is on a table, propped at a steep angle in a tablet case, you have much less neck strain and pain.
The research team didn't study what's best for the hands and wrists, assuming you use your tablet for tasks that need typing. However, here's what I tell my patients if they plan to do a lot of typing (such as answering a lot of emails):
-- Don't work with the tablet in your lap. Use a table and chair.
-- Use a tablet case that holds the tablet at a comfortable viewing angle.
-- Use a keyboard, instead of the keyboard screen on the tablet: If the tablet screen is propped up at the ideal angle to see, it will be hard to type on. And there are very light wireless keyboards for tablets (that's what I use).
-- Shift your hands, your weight, or even stand up when you can.
-- Take a break every 15 minutes.
If all you want to do is read on your tablet, use a device that props it up. Or use a device that rests on the floor by your feet and holds a tablet propped up at the correct angle in front of you, like a music stand. You can just read and tap the screen to flip the page, your neck in the position it likes best.