How Your iPad May Be Hurting You

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Let me guess—you bought an iPad or another electronic tablet or received one as a gift, and now you feel pain in your neck and upper back.

There’s no doubt that tablet computers are fun and useful gadgets (in fact, around 70 million people bought them in 2011). But a new study shows that, depending on how you position one when you use it, you could be seriously straining your neck and upper back.

The study was coauthored by Jack T. Dennerlein, PhD, director of the Occupational Biomechanics and Ergonomics Laboratory and a senior lecturer on ergonomics and safety at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. If you use a tablet, I think it’s important for you to know about his findings…


To study how head and neck postures vary when using a tablet, the researchers asked 15 experienced tablet users to use two different tablets—the Apple iPad2 and the Motorola Xoom—while they were seated in armless chairs and hooked up to an infrared motion analysis system that precisely measured their head and neck postures. They were given cases that allowed the tablets to be propped up at a variety of angles, and they were asked to perform typical tablet tasks such as browsing the Internet…reading newspaper articles…playing solitaire…reading and writing e-mail…and watching videos. Each user tried four different positions that are popular among tablet users out in the real world…

  • Lap-Hand: The tablet was held on the user’s lap without its case.
  • Lap-Case: The tablet was put in its case at its lowest angle setting and was held in the user’s lap.
  • Table-Case: A table was placed in front of the chair. The tablet was placed on the table in its case at its lowest angle setting.
  • Table-Movie: Again, a table was placed in front of the chair. The tablet was placed on the table in its case at its highest angle setting (what lots of tablet owners do when they watch movies or other videos.)


What the researchers found was that, except for when the tablet was in Table-Movie position, the users’ neck flexion (a measure of how much the chin points towards the chest) was quite large, about 15 to 25 degrees beyond a comfortable, looking-straight-ahead position. And this isn’t good! The concern, said Dr. Dennerlein, is that that level of neck flexion can strain the muscles in the back of the neck and the upper back, especially if a person uses the tablet in that position for more than just a few minutes at a time.

So how are you supposed to use your tablet without straining your neck?

  • If you’re watching a video…The best thing to do, said Dr. Dennerlein, is to put the tablet on a table or other surface in front of you in a case that lets you keep the tablet perpendicular or nearly perpendicular (at its high angle)—as if it were a laptop screen. That way, your head will stay in a more neutral position, putting less strain on your neck and back. If you don’t have a case, you can put the tablet on the surface and prop it up with whatever’s handy—a rolled-up coat, a purse, a backpack.
  • If you’re touching the screen…While sitting, instead of holding the laptop flat on your lap, try putting your bag or a few pillows on your lap and then putting the tablet on top of those things (ideally in its case at its low angle), said Dr. Dennerlein. That way, the tablet will be higher up so you don’t have to slump over as much to use it. While standing, try to hold the tablet like a clipboard, or rest it on a high counter if you can, as opposed to holding it horizontally at waist level.

But no matter which posture you choose, try to switch it up every 15 minutes if you can, said Dr. Dennerlein—that way you’ll vary which muscles you’re using and avoid straining one particular set.

For shoulder and neck stretches, read “Simple Stretches That Really Do Relieve Pain,”from our sister publication, Bottom Line Health.

Source: Jack T. Dennerlein, PhD, director, Occupational Biomechanics and Ergonomics Laboratory, senior lecturer on ergonomics and safety, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston.