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OHS Canada Magazine

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iPain in the Neck


There is no turning back — digital technology and the prolific use of tablets and cellphones are here to stay. But that massive adoption of digital technology has also heralded a host of ergonomic ills stemming from bad posture, strained necks and fatigued muscles. This condition has become so common that many of us by now are familiar with the term “iPad neck” or “text neck”.

“They used to have BlackBerry thumb; now we’ve got iPad neck,” said Carmel Murphy, a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist and owner of FORME Ergonomics in North Vancouver, British Columbia. “I think you are going to see some new areas of the body that might be more at risk because of that constant and static staying posture that people are in.”

Maintaining a static posture for certain periods of time can contribute to creating muscle strain. “You are not really getting the blood into the muscles, you are getting a build-up, a static head clustering that could lead to discomfort beyond that,” Murphy explained.

Ergonomist Dan Robinson, president of Robinson Ergonomics Inc. in Coquitlam, British Columbia, agreed that people commonly overlook ergonomics when using seemingly innocuous lightweight and portable devices like tablets. Although those who sit in front of desktop computers may also adopt improper postures, the line of sight and hand position for data input on tablets are much close together. “That typically means we take care of putting the iPad into a position that is easy to reach, but requires awkward neck positions to look at the screen,” Robinson added.

Although he has yet to see specific research linking tablet use and circulatory problems, any posture involving contact pressure on parts of the body or sustained joint angles that generate muscle fatigue are likely to restrict blood flow.

Typing on a desktop computer involves using most, if not all, fingers. Compare that to typing on a tablet touchscreen lacking in tactile feedback. As such, an individual often ends up employing either an index finger or a two-finger typing method that requires watching the keys, while the fingers not being used are folded into the palm in a flexed position or held out of the way in an extended pose — neither of which is ideal.

It is also common for tablet users to hold the device in one hand and navigate with the other, requiring a static grip in the holding hand that can contribute to muscle fatigue, Robinson added. Users who adjust their posture to better see the tablet screen are also more susceptible to strains.

A study on the ergonomic impact of tablet use, conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, explored how the tilt produced by tablet cases can affect head and neck flexion angles. Based on observations of 15 experienced media tablet users, findings showed that head and neck posture could be improved by placing tablets higher to avoid low gaze angles. Tablet cases and stands can also be employed to provide optimal and neutral viewing angles.

As a rule, users should target a neutral posture, vary postures, take breaks and be alert for physical red flags like fatigue or discomfort. Employers should also consider how staff use their devices. If the work task is data-input intensive, keyboards or voice input would prove more effective than touchscreens. Changing position is also crucial since there is no ideal posture to cover off all human elements, including eyes, neck, shoulders and wrists.

“There is a tendency for some companies to downplay the dangers associated with computing in general, relative to more manually intensive jobs,” Robinson suggested. “The evidence says that people who use computers are at significant risk of injury and that work station configuration and working patterns can make a difference.”

A key factor to avoid these ergonomic pitfalls is educating staff. “People are always able to make better choices whenever they have been given some information on the best way to use something, or given some education on what is a good posture to use,” Murphy said.

Ann Ruppenstein is a writer in Toronto.