Study: Is Your Tablet Computer a Pain in the Neck?

By Tara Weng,

Is your tablet a 'pain in the neck'? (Literally!)
Is your tablet a 'pain in the neck'? (Literally!)

Along with the advances of modern-day technology comes a new set of aches and pains to worry about.

Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health, Microsoft Corp. and Brigham and Women's Hospital say neck/shoulder pain associated with the prolonged use of tablet computers can be avoided if people do not use the devices while they're resting in their laps, and by using cases that offer higher viewing angles.

"Compared to typical desktop computing scenarios, the use of media tablet computers is associated with high head and neck flexion [flexed] postures, and there may be more of a concern for the development of neck and shoulder discomfort," lead investigator Jack Dennerlein, of the Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, and Brigham and Women's Hospital, said in a journal news release.

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The Study

In the study, his team asked 15 experienced tablet users to complete certain tasks, such as surfing the Internet, reading, playing games, watching movies and emailing, with two types of tablet devices -- an Apple iPad2 and a Motorola Xoom.

All the tablets provided had a proprietary case that allowed them to be tilted up for use at a low or high angle. (The Apple Smart Cover offers tilt angles of 15° and 73°, and the Motorola Portfolio Case enables tilt angles of 45° and 63°.)

The participants were instructed to position their tablets in various ways, such as in their lap and on a table at various angles, to test how the configurations affected their neck and shoulders.

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The Results

The researchers found that the iPad2 case design forced participants' head and neck into more flexed postures, causing pain over time. The study indicated that for both tablet devices, head and neck flexion angles were greater than those associated with desktop or notebook computers.

When used on a table at their highest angle, however, users' postures become more neutral, allowing for more natural neck/shoulder position.

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The study's authors concluded when using tablets, people should place the devices on a table at a steep angle -- not in their lap -- to avoid looking down and more importantly avoid a painful neck and/or shoulder.

However, there was a hitch: The researchers noted that this position may not be ideal if users perform a task that requires input with their hands. They believe more research is needed to determine how tablet positioning could affect arms and wrists.