Fixing Poor Laptop Ergonomics

Got a MacBook for Christmas? I’ve used laptop computers almost exclusively for a dozen years now, and they’ve been great, but for day in, day out, workhorse duty the standard laptop configuration does have serious ergonomic deficiencies.

If you position the computer high enough for comfortable and ergonomically healthy viewing angle to the screen, your wrists will be cranked down in unhealthy ape-hanger mode, stressing soft connective tissues, including the troublesome carpal tunnel where the brachial nerves pass through your wrists to your hands.

Conversely, if you locate the machine low enough that your wrists stay flat and relaxed, the screen will be where you must tilt your head downward in order to see it. A typical adult human head reportedly weighs as much as a bowling ball, so that creates lots of stress on neck, shoulder and back muscles and connective tissues, and typical laptop user body language also tends to hunch your shoulders, hollow your chest and inhibit healthy abdominal-breathing.

Back when most laptops were used as satellites for desktop workstations on road trips or short duration portable tasks, their crummy ergonomics weren’t a big issue, but more and more people use laptops for their only computer. Apple laptops have been outselling the company’s desktop models since the early-mid ’00s. Apple’s 2008 10-K report showed Mac notebook sales more than doubling from 2006 to 2008, compared to “only” a 70 percent increase in desktop sales. IDC research reported laptop sales of computers in the overall PC market surpassed desktop sales in the U.S. for the first time this fall.

Deteriorating Posture

Most users don’t give computer ergonomics much thought until they begin to suffer pain, fatigue, weakness, headaches, numbness, nerve tingling, or even temporomandibular joint (TMJ) symptoms, one or more of which most users will eventually experience if they stay at it long enough. I’ve watched the posture of several people I know deteriorate after they switched to laptop computers — round shoulders, collar-gap at the back of the neck, hollowing chests.

The recommended posture working with computers is to position the keyboard flat at elbow height with elbows angled at +/- 90 degrees and forearms supported by wrist rests. The monitor should be at approximately eye level so you can sit up straight in a chair with back support, all of which are impossible using a laptop hands-on.

The Solution

The solution to laptop ergonomics is to use an external keyboard and mouse in conjunction with a laptop stand, of which there must be dozens on the market, whenever practical to elevate the screen to a proper viewing angle at your home or office workstation. Keyboard support at 24 to 25 inches off the floor is about right for me, and I keep the laptop on a stand elevated to a comfortable, low-stress, viewing angle.

Some sort of keyboard and mousing tray will probably be necessary to lower the ‘board enough at most desks or tables. Attachable, slide-out units can be retrofitted in most instances. I use a custom made (by me) computer desk with the main desktop surface at comfortable keyboarding height, placing the laptop stand and computer on top of that. With this setup I’ve been able to work long hours daily with laptop computers for 12 years without developing computer-related stress or fatigue problems.

Laying Down On The Job

There is a way to use a laptop with its own keyboard and pointing device without undue ergonomic stress, but it involves literally laying down on the job and a laptop stand designed for reclined computing, such as the Laptop Laidback, the LapWorks Wizard, or the Lapdawg X4. The support trays of these can all be adjusted for angle and height to allow for both a comfortable viewing angle as well as positioning your arms with elbows at right angles and supported by the bed or sofa surface with the keyboard and trackpad within relaxed reach and without lifting your arms. I don’t work all day like that, but I can put in several hours with no discomfort.

The Laptop Laidback, which has just been upgraded, sells for $99.95.

The Lapworks Wizard also sells for $99.95 but is on sale for $89.95 until 12/31/08 with free shipping included.

The Lapdawg X4 sells for $130.00, shipping included.