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Hunched Over Laptop Syndrome – Tips for Artists Working at Desks

ARTIST'S CORNER, Printmaking

Artists spend lots of time hunched over their desk while creating, marketing, and selling their art – here’s some tips and gear to prevent common posture and desk-related injuries.

Contributor Kevin O’Connor hasn’t been able to send as many blog posts lately as he had earlier last year. Here’s the explanation why, and some steps he’s outlined to help our readers avoid the problems he’s been managing and overcoming.

The Importance of Being Earnest (About Ergonomics)

My productivity took a steep drop this fall, and it still hasn’t recovered. Why, you say? It all started very innocently…

I decided to get a new desk and chair, to work with better ergonomics. My back had been a bit stiff, as well as my neck. It was time to do better.

I decided I’d work out a way to alternate between working while standing and while sitting, since changing position often is supposed to be good for you—and until very recently, sitting was perceived to be entirely evil.

Changing position is good not only for back and neck, but for your eyes, which need to be refocused at different distances much more often than most computer users take time to do when focused on the screen in front of them.

It’s not always necessary to pay full new price for this sort of gear, as companies that have merged, redecorated or closed dispose of a lot of perfectly good gear on the market at marked-down prices—but even at retail, it’s less expensive than the loss of productivity and income, coupled with the ongoing pain that bad ergonomics can bring.

What I Did Right

Some things I did well—let me brag a little before I tell you how badly I messed up.

I Found the Perfect Tall Workstation

I wanted a work table/desk at which I could stand and work, and sit down to work when I needed to sit. I looked at adjustable tables, both manual and electric, but it seemed better to have a fixed height table, as I’m often testing heavy displays and other gear that shouldn’t be running up and down all the time. It also needed to be reasonably easy to lock to the wall, as I live in earthquake country.

You haven’t lived until you’ve been sitting in your office during an earthquake and looked up to see a Metro rack cheerfully falling right toward you! Now, everything is fixed to the wall so it won’t go very far when the deck starts rocking.

I need a fairly deep and broad desk, to accommodate displays and other hardware being tested. IKEA had made for many years a desk they called the Jerker, and when it was discontinued, many people mourned its demise. (Yes, you wonder sometimes about IKEA’s sensitivity to naming conventions, don’t you? I do, too.)

The desk is deeper than average, and perfect for my needs, which include holding two big displays on the main table at standing height, and at least one overhead shelf for smaller tools. I wanted a black model, not a lighter-colored desk, so that as little light and color would bounce up from the desk as possible without having to recover the surface. Finally, I wanted to be able to attach a keyboard tray underneath the main table.

I finally found, on Craigslist, a black Jerker. I called the seller and raced over to grab it before someone else scored the deal of the year. I’d finally found a perfect desk for my needs.

It could be perfectly adjusted to match my height, but was not adjustable once fixed without unbolting and re-bolting. I figured I would do it once, do it right, and forget about it. Instead of moving the desk up and down, I’d move from standing to sitting in a chair the right height for the desk.

I Scored a Tall Chair

While serious ergonomic consultants had advised me to avoid Aeron chairs, I’d never had a problem with mine. My Aeron chair has served me well for many years, but it wasn’t the right height. I needed a chair that would rise high enough that I could sit at my standing desk when needed. Fortunately, the Aeron line also offers a drafting chair model, called the Aeron Drafting Stool. Unfortunately, a new one is A Serious Investment.

Enter Craigslist again; I found a man who is factory-trained to refurbish Aeron chairs, was selling a drafting chair model in my size, and even had one in a color other than black. Score two!

I was feeling pretty good about this, and started using the new setup right away. Now, for the bad news. This setup led to disaster, through no fault of its own. It was entirely User Error.

What I Did Wrong

So far, this all sounds pretty good, right? I got a great desk, set it at the right height to work standing, got a tall chair to match the desk height so I could work sitting—what’s not to like?

Unfortunately, after these two first steps, perfectly executed, I ruined the whole job. I failed to set the display to the right height. This was disastrous.

The “right height” is very specific, and is unique to each individual. The top of the screen should be no lower than just below the height of your eye level. This means that if your screen is lower than eye height, the norm when using a laptop, your head will be tilting down.

The more your head tilts downward, the more strain you put on your neck. It’s as if you’d asked your neck to support the weight of a bowling ball!

If you have a head that’s bigger than average (and I do; Size 7 5/8 hat size, or XXL), this is guaranteed to be a problem. Imagine perching a 10–12 pound bowling ball squarely on your shoulders, versus hanging it out over the side at a 45° angle. The weight hanging over feels heavier and heavier very quickly, and your neck muscles revolt.

If you’re on multiple deadlines, concentrating and tense, focused simply on getting the work done, as I was, the situation gets worse and worse. Fathead that I am, I didn’t realize until too late just what damage I’d done.

What Happened to Me

I gave myself a case of HOLS; Hunched Over Laptop Syndrome. Trust me, you don’t want this affliction, nor the embarrassment of knowing You Did It to Yourself. Worse yet, if it continues, you can create even more serious problems for yourself, both immediate and long term. Sore and inflamed muscles lead to stiffness and restricted range of movement.

If not addressed, you can compress nerves, leading to frequent headaches, numbness, blurred vision, nausea, and even muscle weaknesses. Even longer term, you can develop osteoarthritis, and degenerative joint disease. Are you taking this seriously yet?

Causes of HOLS

HOLS occurs when people repeatedly strain neck and shoulder muscles extend their heads out over their shoulders, and roll/hunch their shoulders forward, two things commonly done while working on laptops.

The laptop is usually below eye level, necessitating looking down, and the keyboard is compact, requiring moving hands close together to type, rolling the shoulders forward. Both add together to create serious problems, and should be avoided whenever possible. In addition, you can diminish the flow of oxygen to both muscles and brain, not a good thing either.

Now, imagine that when you’re not working on your laptop, you might be looking down again, this time at your tablet, or your phone, for extended periods of time. There’s that heavy weight, hanging over the edge, pulling at all those neck and shoulder muscles. The temptation to keep using these devices incorrectly is almost irresistible, but it must be avoided.

Symptoms of HOLS

  1. Stiff neck, stiff shoulder(s), frozen shoulder(s).
  2. Tingling sensation in arms and fingers.
  3. Ongoing pain in neck, back of the head, shoulder blades, arms, jaw.
  4. Numbness in the face, jaw, head or neck.

Personal Experience

Everything tightened up and hurt more than I could have imagined. I couldn’t turn my head, I couldn’t pop my incredibly tense and stiff neck (way too tight for that!), and I couldn’t easily fall asleep. My jaw hurt so much my teeth hurt. My right shoulder (mouse arm) was affected the worst. I couldn’t type for more than a few minutes without my whole upper body, head to waist, complaining that it was time to stop.

Now, almost four months later, it’s still a misery, diminished but not gone. Ice during the day, heating pad at night, scrupulous about following the steps below, and still not recovered. Limited time on the computer, carefully monitored with frequent breaks. These usually come just as I’ve gotten a writing inspiration and want to run with it.

As much as possible, I use dictation to write now, both responding to e-mails and writing articles such as this one. Teeth and jaw still hurt much of the time, and itch the rest of the time. Here’s how to avoid getting the same pain. Don’t get this!

Steps to Avoid Agony

1. Pick the best height for your desk

This is based on your height, either sitting or standing, or both.

First, figure out where your arms should go, to work best on your keyboard.

If you’re going to be working standing, stand where your desk will be, and put your arms straight out in front of you, parallel to the floor. Your desk height should be just enough below your hands to accommodate your keyboard without having to bend your wrists. If you can enlist the help of a friend to do this measuring, it goes quicker.

If you’re going to be working sitting down, the same rule applies. Put your arms straight out while sitting down, and make sure your hands are directly over the keyboard, just enough above the keyboard to type. You may want to put an ergonomic wrist rest in front of your keyboard to pad your wrists. These are easily found by searching “keyboard wrist rest” on Amazon. I use the 3M gel model.

The height of the desk, either standing or sitting, should be set so that your keyboard is positioned for maximum comfort for your arms and hands to type. You do NOT want your hands to be bending up or down from their wrists so that you can type, nor do you want your arms to have to rise up higher than perpendicular to the floor.

If either of these bendings is happening, change the height of the desk, or attach a keyboard tray underneath the desk, preferably one with adjustable height, or both. No bent wrists when typing, please! This is critically important.

If you want to, tilt the back of your desk slightly away from you, so that your keyboard angles down at the back, and hands and arms point slightly down when typing. This should be just enough so that hands and arms form a straight line still, just not a line perpendicular to the floor.

2. Display Height and Keyboards; A Strained Relationship

You’ll quickly discover that the best height for your laptop keyboard is not the best height for your laptop screen.

If you’re working solely on a laptop, you’ll need to put the display at the correct height first, and then deal with the keyboard, or plug in an external display to use the laptop keyboard, putting each piece at the correct height. Separating the screen from the keyboard and putting each at the best height for you is one of the best ways to ensure you don’t end up HOLS and/or CTS (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome).

My wrists particularly like Matias keyboards, which have a positive tactile click when I press a key, and over which my hands fly when I’m typing. On the other hand, if you don’t work alone, the constant key-click noise may offend everyone around you. Fortunately, they make a quiet model as well! Touch typists are always looking for the next great keyboard that fits their hands best, and adds the least amount of stress; you may need to try several to find the best match.

If you’re wrestling with severe CTS or want to avoid wrestling with it, you may wish to move up to the next level and check out a split keyboard, with an ergonomic slope to it. These are designed to give minimal strain on your hands while typing. You can learn more about a just-announced model by clicking here.

Once you find a great keyboard, and are using it correctly, so you aren’t adding additional stress to your wrists, it’s time to address the display.

Where to Put Displays

It’s absolutely essential that you position your display correctly. If you’re working with a laptop, this is the point where you have to make a critical decision.

If you’re going to use your laptop display as your primary or only display, your laptop will need to be raised up from the desk, so that its top edge is just below your eyes, and no lower. Of course, this means you won’t be able to use the built-in keyboard or track-pad in comfort, so you’ll need to plug external models.

I prefer a low trackball to a mouse, which keeps my wrist more comfortable, so I use this SlimBlade model from Kensington, which has a very low profile. The low height means it finds nicely into a briefcase in addition to being very comfortable to use.

Alternately, you can use an external display on your desktop, plugging it into your laptop and using the keyboard and track-pad on the laptop while looking at the bigger screen, properly adjusted to the correct height for you. Let’s look at both options and see what’s best for your particular needs.

Laptops On Stands

Many risers stands for laptops are not quite tall enough. As you’re shopping, start by measuring the distance from the base of your laptop screen to its top edge. Next, measure the distance from the base of the laptop to the point at the center of your eyes. Subtract the first number from the second. That’s the height the laptop stand needs to raise your laptop for good ergonomics.

You can use this number to shop for laptop riser stands to be sure you get one tall enough. Alternately, you can build a permanent stand of wood, or stacked books (old encyclopedias are great for this), or buy one of the many stands designed for this need (as long as they’re tall enough).

If you’re only going to use the stand on your desk, once you find the right height, you’re done. What if you want to use the stand on the road also? Portability becomes a factor, so you’ll want to look for a stand that folds as flat as possible while still providing the height you need. Here’s one that folds nicely to fit in a briefcase, and raises to a good height:

The next model, the Griffin Elevator, is not as compact, but fits nicely in a suitcase. You’ll see this one in the photos I shot showing my own work setup.

Using a Desktop Display

Plugging om a separate display is a great option. In this photo, you can see the setup I’ve been using to write this article. The only thing missing is the low profile trackball I plug in when I need a mouse a lot. Fortunately, I’ve memorized so many keyboard shortcuts that I can write for a long time without ever needing a mouse.

The display shown has an adjustable base, allowing me to raise its height up to almost the height I wanted.

Since it wasn’t quite where I needed it for my neck to feel good, I pulled a footrest out of the studio, and used it as a base for the display. This wasn’t going to be a good long term solution in earthquake country, so I’m currently working on a way to anchor the display to the desk, on the support stand, so that neither stand nor display will go anywhere if the ground starts rocking.

With the combination of the base stand and the adjustable built-in base of the display, I can fine-tune my display height to offer as much relief as possible to my aching neck, keeping my head firmly, directly over my shoulders to minimize stress on tortured tissues.

One thing you’ll notice is that there are a lot of wires in the photo. To ease connecting and re-connecting my laptop, my next purchase will be a hub that will connect most of this with one cable. Otherwise, I’d be sorely tempted to skip the constant plugging and unplugging that a laptop on the go requires.

Another option for perfect adjustment would be an arm that mounts on your desk, and supports your display. Most quality displays have a VESA standard adapter, which will attach nicely to a VESA standard arm.

This arm will let you position your display at the precise height best for you. Turns out that various manufacturers even make arms for laptops that let them float over your desk, as shown below.

Whether you lift your laptop up to eye level, or plug in a separate display, keyboard and mouse or track-pad, the key goal is to be sure your eyes can look straight into the screen. Another advantage of using an arm-mounted display is that this is the easiest way to accommodate multiple users of one display, so that everyone can work with the display set at the correct height for each person.

3. Get the chair Height Right for You

Set the height of your chair at the correct height to allow your head to look straight into the screen. If your chair doesn’t adjust, either adjust the display, or the desk, or put a riser under the display, as shown earlier.

I wanted a tall chair, so I could use the display and desk either sitting or standing. I could adjust my drafting chair so that my head when sitting in it was the same height as when I stand, so that I didn’t have to adjust display or desk. Think of this as the low-tech version of an adjustable desk!

My failure to make my head height match my display height was the critical factor that led to the HOLS misery I currently endure. Let me assure you; this step is absolutely critical, so please don’t overlook it the way I did.

4. Ensure Full Back and Leg Support

Your chair also has to offer back and leg support. When you sit in it correctly, leaning back, it must completely support your back, so that you can sit straight up and look directly into the screen.

Don’t be tempted to sit on a stool, or perch on the front edge of your chair, hunched forward. A full back support lets you sit back and position your head perfectly above your shoulders for full support, instead of neck-damaging hunching forward.

Support for your legs is important, too. On the drafting stool, my feet are partially supported by a ring footrest that surrounds the whole chair (for aesthetics or ease of manufacture, not utility, since the back part of the ring is never used). It’s not enough, so I’ve started designing a foot rest for tall chairs; until then, I’m using a crate which is just the right height.

Everyone should consider a foot rest under your desk for supporting your feet off the ground, which also offers support for your legs. A chair that has a seat deep enough to support under your thighs is essential, another reason not to use a stool.

5. Use Timer/Reminder Software

After you get the hardware set up correctly, it’s still possible to spend way too long a time staring at the screen, intently focused on the task at hand.

Reminder software will prompt you to get up and move at pre-specified intervals. There are several available, ranging from free to inexpensive. I highly recommend you get one; search for “software to remind you to take a break from the computer” to get several hits of lists of options for various platforms.

6. Limit your time hunching over your tablet and phone also

The same hunch that drags your head down when working on a laptop drags your head down when using your phone or tablet screens.

Conclusion—Don’t Follow My Bad Example

I’ve probably told you more than you ever wanted to know about the risks of injury that can happen easily spending too much time using computer, tablet and phone. It’s slowed me down more than I’ve ever been slowed down (or at least, more than any time except when I had malaria), and the most frustrating part of the whole experience is that it didn’t have to happen. Thus, I’ve put in a lot of detail about how to equip your workstation for optimal protection against these kids of injuries.

It’s unlikely we’ll be working without computers any time soon, so we should master the advice and the examples shown, to protect our health and productivity, both short and long term. Let me encourage you to be healthy while you work! You’ll be glad you made the effort.

Kevin O’Connor helps design and test software, is a graphic designer and photographer for multiple clients and companies, and fixes people’s (and companies’) color.

He has consulted to multiple companies, including Apple, Sony, Fujifilm USA, and X-Rite. He loves teaching good color practices to enthusiastic learners.


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