Laptops: Handle them with care

How to prevent the risks associated with using laptops

woman lying in sofa and working with her laptop

Our journey from using desktops to flaunting laptops has been satisfying and fashionable. Despite the tremendous popularity and convenience, laptops pose some serious health risks if not used cautiously.

Vision problems

Generally, when we use a laptop, the distance between the laptop screen and our eyes is little. This increases our chances of developing Computer Vision Syndrome [CVS].

CVS is characterised by eye strain, blurred vision, dry eyes and head ache. Staring at the laptop screen for long decreases the blink rate. It can also lead to refractory errors especially nearsightedness [myopia], which can develop into glaucoma if precautions are not taken.

How to prevent it…

  • Get your eyes checked at least once a year.
  • Avoid excessive bright lights both artificial light [fluorescent tubes] and natural light.
  • Place the laptop screen in such a way that windows are to the sides, not in front or behind the screen.
  • Maintain a distance of 20 – 30 inches [length of an arm] between the eyes and the laptop.
  • Use a font size of 12 – 14.
  • Install an anti-glare screen to minimise the glare.
  • Match the brightness and the contrast of the screen to that of the ambient light.
  • Practise the 20/20/20 rule—every 20 minutes, turn your eyes away from the laptop and focus on an object about 20ft away for about 20 seconds.
  • Prevent your eyes from getting dry by avoiding sitting directly under a fan. Keep the eyes moist by blinking often and splashing water on the eyes or lubricating them with moisturising eye drops.
  • Take frequent breaks; they are a must as the breaks allow the muscles to relax and avoid eye strain.
  • Exercise your eyes. Hold a pencil in front of you about an arm away and focus on the tip. Now, bring the pencil towards your eye, slowly. When it comes close enough for you to see double, do it all over again.

Spine issues

Although a laptop is convenient because of its portability, it has poor ergonomic features [minimum distance between the screen and the keyboard]. If kept on the lap, it increases the tendency to bend the neck forward and hunch the back, leading to tension in the neck going further down the spine.

Back, neck and shoulder pain are the commonest problems associated with using the laptop at a stretch. These problems can worsen with time, leading to more severe spinal problems like spondylitis, herniated disc or disc rupture.

How to prevent it…

  • Pay attention to your posture when you are using the laptop. If you are using it for a short time, sit in a comfortable chair and angle the laptop screen such a way that there is minimum neck deviation. If you are using it for a long time, place the laptop on a desk in a way that will allow you to view the screen without bending your neck.
  • Try to maintain the angle between the arm and forearm at 90 degrees. If the angle is less, raise the seat or adjust it.
  • Avoid using touch pads and use a separate mouse and when using it, keep the arm and elbow close to the body.
  • Use an adjustable chair that provides lumbar [lower back] support and helps in maintaining an erect sitting posture. Raise the level of the laptop by using a laptop stand or thick book, as most back problems are caused due to slouching.
  • Ensure that your spine and thighs are at 90 degrees.
  • Keep your feet firmly on the floor or use a foot rest. The idea is to keep the thighs parallel to the floor.
  • Stand up, walk around, and do a few stretching exercises every once in a while.
  • If you have to lug your laptop around, use a laptop bag with padded shoulder straps and alternate the shoulders after few minutes. If the laptop weighs over 10 lbs [4.5 kg], consider using a carrier bag with rolls.
  • Elevate the rear end of the laptop so that the key board is inclined and the forearm is parallel to the floor.

Finger and wrist trouble

The cramped design of the keyboard often does not provide enough space for moving fingers, which leads to early fatigue and strain. The condition worsens due to the position of the wrist while typing and while using the touchpad.

This can further compress the nerves and blood vessels leading to pain and swelling in the wrist and fingers known as Compartment Syndrome. Excessive repeated movements of the fingers required for typing stresses the small joints leading to Repeated Stress Syndrome.

How to prevent it…

  • Exercise your fingers every 15 – 20 minutes. Take a ball that comfortably fits in your palm and keep squeezing it. This allows continuous blood flow and also strengthens the wrist and finger muscles.
  • While typing and using a mouse, support your wrist with a pad or a pillow to reduce the pressure on the wrist and avoid injury.
  • Avoid excessive usage of touch pads and prefer mouse.
  • Use a portable USB keyboard as it gives your fingers ample space to move.
  • Keep fingers flat while typing.
  • Use laptops for short period of time and take frequent breaks to give your hands some rest.

Radiation repercussions

Laptops release heat from the bottom and if kept on the lap for long can decrease the sperm count of a man due to the heat produced.

Continuous and long-term usage is found to cause DNA damage due to release of Extremely Low Frequency [ELF] radiation. The radiation is also known to cause some foetal damage.

How to prevent it…

  • Avoid keeping the laptop on the lap.
  • If you are pregnant, avoid keeping laptop near the abdomen to avoid foetal defects.
  • Don't charge the laptop batteries when not in use, as over charged batteries may emit some radiation.
  • Consume foods rich in vitamin A and C. They help combat the harmful effects of laptop radiation as they are rich in antioxidants.
  • Use screen radiant filter plates to prevent the harmful effects of screen radiation.

Effect on skin

When a laptop is kept on the bare lap for long, it raises the temperature of the groin area above 50 degree celsius. The long term exposure to heat may lead to redness, soreness or lesions. If unattended, it can lead to darkening of the skin called as Toasted Skin Syndrome.

How to prevent it…

  • Keep the laptop on a desk and not on the lap.
  • Use a portable laptop knee tray, which cushions your skin from the heat.

Mental health problems

The portability of laptop means that it remains hooked to you even if you don't wish to. This has caused increased stress, depression, dependence and insomnia among regular users.

Subconsciously you are also worried about the safety of your prized possession and its theft means both mental and financial stress.

How to prevent it…

  • Avoid carrying your laptops everywhere you go.
  • Give the laptop a break. Don't use the laptop if you don't have urgent work, especially when you are home. Having kids in your lap is more satisfying than having the laptop. So spend time with your family.

Laptops have become a necessary evil. Use them judiciously with full awareness of the risks they bring along.

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Meenakshi Ganjoo
Meenakshi Ganjoo, MBBS, MD [PSM], is associate consultant, Preventive and Lifestyle Medicine at Medanta – The Medicity, Gurgaon. She has previously worked in association with Government of Karnataka [NRHM] and has authored books on ASHA Training Program. She has also worked with WHO [NPSP].

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