Young Adults, Women at Risk for Neck Pain from Tablet Computers

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Students today have a slew of technologies to help them learn, but a study found that poor posture while using a touchscreen tablet computer (such as an iPad) saddled university students with higher rates of neck, upper back, and shoulder pain. And young adults aren’t the only ones at elevated risk—women also reported more pain associated with the devices. The research was published in 2018 in The Journal of Physical Therapy Science.

“Musculoskeletal symptoms are natural warning signs that the body is telling us something is not right,” said the study’s lead author Szu-Ping Lee, PT, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It is important not to ignore them. Based on our findings, this message is perhaps most important for younger people.”
Studious woman holding a tablet and having neck pain.“We suspect that the prevalence of neck and shoulder pain due to technologies, such as the tablet computer, is only going to increase as they become more and more common”Why Are Young People and Women Susceptible to Tablet-related Neck Pain?
The study’s findings come from a survey sent to 412 public university students, staff, faculty, and alumni (135 men and 275 women) who use touchscreen tablets (smartphone use was not included in the survey). The survey asked participants to describe their typical tablet usage and their current neck and shoulder pain symptoms.

The results showed that current musculoskeletal symptoms, gender, and certain postures during the use of tablet computers were significant risk factors associated with tablet-related neck and shoulder pain.

While the researchers did not specifically investigate age as a risk factor, they found that students—the youngest group studied—reported higher prevalence of neck and shoulder symptoms (73.4%) when using tablet computers compared to faculty, staff, and alumni (52–64.9%).

“University students in the United States typically do not have a permanent workstation and are constantly moving between classes,” Dr. Lee noted. “It may be more common for the students to use their tablet computers in compromised postures, such as placing them in the lap while sitting without back support, which is one of the most important risk factors for neck and shoulder symptoms associated with tablet use we found in this study.”

In addition to sitting without back support and sitting with the tablet in your lap, other poor postures leading to tablet-related neck pain were lying on your side or on your back during tablet computer use.

The other key study finding was that women had a greater incidence of neck and shoulder pain—they were 2.059 times more likely to experience musculoskeletal symptoms during tablet use than men. Dr. Lee said that, in general, neck and shoulder pain is more common in women, which was also supported by the study findings (63.3% of female participants reported current musculoskeletal symptoms compared to 53.3% in the males).

Gender differences in body size, proportions, and biomechanics may explain the disparity in neck and shoulder musculoskeletal symptoms, Dr. Lee said.

“It has been shown that during computer use in work environments, women assume neck flexion more often,” Dr. Lee said. “The female gender’s generally lower muscle strength and smaller body size may predispose them to neck and shoulder symptoms.”

How to Apply this Study’s Findings in Your Daily Life
As use of technology becomes more widespread in daily life, musculoskeletal issues that typically affect older adults may begin to impact younger people. As such, Dr. Lee expressed interest in investigating even younger populations than college students—as young as elementary age.

“We suspect that the prevalence of neck and shoulder pain due to technologies, such as the tablet computer, is only going to increase as they become more and more common,” Dr. Lee said. “Perhaps manufacturers should start considering ergonomic factors when designing these devices.”

This study focused on musculoskeletal disorders and found that maintaining good posture during tablet use is important, but Dr. Lee noted that mobile technology use can affect sleep quality and psychological well-being as well.

“Only 46.1% of the participants in this study said that they would stop using the tablet even if they experience symptoms such as neck and shoulder pain, which is mind-boggling,” Dr Lee said.

Whether you’re a student, office worker, or simply enjoy using your tablet to consume news and other information, technology can lead to back and neck pain when you don’t practice proper posture. It’s important to pay attention if you feel neck or shoulder pain during use. Don’t ignore your symptoms, as that could lead to a larger spinal problem. Technology isn’t going away, so practice healthy tablet posture to protect your spine.

Updated on: 07/25/18
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Take Charge of Your Upper Back Pain
Szu-Ping Lee, PT, PhD
Associate Professor
Department of Physical Therapy
University of Las Vegas
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Take Charge of Your Upper Back Pain

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