Health Team

Laptops can go ergonomic

Posted April 1, 2009 5:40 p.m. EDT
Updated April 1, 2009 6:42 p.m. EDT

— Adding a few devices and making some simple changes to a workstation can alleviate physical problems – such as numb fingers, a sore back or neck – caused by prolonged use of laptop computers.

Caroline Rourk, an office worker at Duke University, enjoyed the benefits of using a light, mobile laptop. But about five months ago, she started having numbness in her fingers.

Tamara James, Duke's director of ergonomics, spotted Rourk's problem immediately: She rested her arm on the corner of her desk, pressing on the ulnar nerve and causing the temporary numbness.

Spending lots of time in that position can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, pain and weakness in the hand, James said.

"The big problem with laptops is that they are really designed for short-term use, but we're using them for long periods of time," she said.

For Rourk, the prescription was relatively simple: get an external keyboard and mouse, put her mouse at elbow level and screen at eye level. To relieve strain on her hand from using a mouse, she can also use her other hand to operate it on occasion.

"I have noticed some improvements since I started using the keyboard," Rourk said.

James said that computer users should also make sure that when they sit at their desk, their thighs are parallel to the ground. Desk chairs should have an adjustable height and adjustable back for lumbar support. The seat of James' also slides in and out, allowing for greater comfort.

Even with the right chair, though, sitting for hours can get uncomfortable. James' workstation can be raised and lowered, allowing her to stand and keep working.

"Even I just do this for five or 10 minutes, I'm giving my back a break by getting out of the chair," James said.

Ergonomic improvements with laptops and desk are worthy investments for both businesses and employees, she said.

"Employees are happier. They're more comfortable. They're more productive," James said.