Secrets of Laptop Ergonomics
The design of laptops is generally bad ergonomically. The more time you spend using one, the more likely you'll start to have problems. In your lap, the screen is usually too low for your neck (causing neck strain). On a table, the screen is often still too low and the keyboard too high (causing carpal tunnel problems).
As I work mostly from coffee shops, the past few months I've battled neck pain and headaches caused by too much time on my laptop. Chiropractic and massage treatment haven't helped much because the core issue is the day to day functional patterns that I'm repeating.
Here are a few simple suggestions I've picked up (besides Ibuprofen) that seem to be helping:
1) Get your eyes checked.
In my case, one of my eyes had changed slightly. Apparently, eye strain is more likely when there are subtle differences eye to eye then when there are larger differences. Be sure to turn up the brightness on your display as well.
2) Sit with your weight on your sit bones with some weight on your feet.
This helps the body align itself properly. Personally, I've found swiss balls and air-pads don't help me. At home, I'm going back to a simple stool and keyboard drawer. Away from home, this means sitting on the edge of most coffee shop benches and chairs.
The first thing you'll notice when you stop slouching is that your head will be way too high for your laptop screen...that's often why we slouch. So...
Most laptops screens are too short for you to sit up straight without straining your neck. Ideally, your line of site with the center of the screen should be straight.
Unfortunately, the screen height of laptops using the Widescreen 13.3 inch 1280 x 800 pixels display, tend to be even shorter than earlier models exacerbating this problem e.g. 8.92" for the MacBook vs. 9.1" of the earlier smaller 12" iBook.
I purchased a used 17" Powerbook (approx. 10.4" height) just to get the extra inch in height, but it was not quite enough...and not everyone can carry around such a big device.
I've been surprised at how a small amount of additional screen height eases the strain on my neck - even just placing my laptop sleeve underneath the back of the device helps.
Laptop-ergonomics has a few different options for airplane trays and sophisticated tabletop stands. If you've used one, post a comment to let me know how it worked out for you. Standit.com has another device. The image may look extreme, but it gives you an idea of how bad laptops are ergonomically when used without props.
4) Use a portable trackball at lap level, consider switching hands for mousing.
It's important for our forearms to be at appoximately 90 degrees when we're working. Mice are hard to use unless they are on a level surface, usually above our lap. Trackballs though can easily be placed on a leg or on a jacket beside me at the right height. Trackballs also reduce strain in your shoulder than mousing.
You might try a trackball that is symmetric and practice using it both left and right handed. I found that when I placed a trackball on a table, I tended to lean my weight towards it throwing off my neck. I also found that the touchpad on my laptop also caused me to twist over time.
You can also get no slip two-sided sticky film to place underneath your trackball if desired. I got some from a physical therapist - not sure where you can buy some.
5) Consider using a portable keyboard at lap level.
Using the laptop riser takes strain off my neck which is most important to me right now. If you have problems with your forearms and wrists, you should consider a mini-keyboard like one of these to place on your lap. The second one even has a built-in trackball.
Design improvements I'd like to see:
Personally, when I see scores of students hunched over their widescreen laptops, I think the industry is creating products that they know hurt people over time. Simple adjustments to laptop hardware such as rear-mounted, replaceable, collapsible 2-3" feet would make a huge difference. Rotating portrait layout displays might also benefit users. More advanced designs might have a 3 to 5" extension device that literally raises the display from the base or detachable keyboards with stands built into the display piece. Apple, send my royalties to...it'll be cheaper than the upcoming slew of class action lawsuits.
I'd also like to see a wider variety of bluetooth mini-keyboards and trackballs as well as keyboards with built-in trackballs.
Software can also help. Those built-in video cameras could detect slouching and ping you to adjust your posture. ErgoStretch is a windows product that reminds you to take breaks and guides you to perform stretches (expect to get stared at Yoga-boy).
Lifehacker has a list of tips for hacking your mouse for productivity, efficiency and comfort. These are often software settings built into your operating system.
Related links and stories:
Ergonomic tips (tagged at LifeHacker)
5 Tips for Using a Laptop Computer (Cornell University)
Laptop ergonomics and tips on using laptop computers (MIT)
How to Ergonomically Set Up Your Laptop as a Desktop (About.com)
Laptop Ergonomics (MacWorld)
Is your laptop a pain in the neck? (CNET)
Avoid Blogging Back (Lifehacker)
OSHA Getting Tougher About Ergonomics (Slashdot)
Input Solutions for Repetitive Stress Victims? (Slashdot)
Making Modifications to Your Computer Workspace? (Slashdot)
Do You Have a PC Posture? (Slashdot)
How Effective are Ergonomic Keyboards? (Slashdot)