Everything You Need To Know About Laptop Ergonomics

If you regularly use a laptop at work or for study, you’ll find that there is a high chance that you are using it incorrectly and that this incorrect use could lead to physical health problems over time.

Laptops have been one of the great inventions of the modern era. A simple and very portable way to work, laptops have transformed the modern workplace. However, since the primary purpose of a laptop is portability, in terms of ergonomics there are quite a few issues to address.

Ergonomic Problems with Laptops and How to Fix Them

Here we will look at the most apparent ergonomic shortcomings of laptops. These are the main factors that are causing you discomfort or are forcing you to work in a non-ergonomic way.

1. Laptop weight & Size

One of the first things to consider when buying a laptop is the weight and size of the product you want to buy. As you’ll see in the next points, a larger laptop would be better for ergonomic reasons such as having a larger screen and larger keyboard.

However, there is another ergonomic factor that is often forgotten and that is the transportation of the laptop. If you are often carrying your laptop for long periods or over long distances, a smaller and lighter laptop would be better in this instance.

Also, you should ideally carry your laptop in a comfortable backpack that distributes the weight evenly on your shoulders, rather than a should strap bag or satchel that would create an imbalance.

2. Small keyboard

Laptops, given their size, generally have small and compact keyboards. This means that the keys are not placed in the most ergonomic way for your hands and wrists.

Often you will be forced into angling and bending your wrists in order to type properly, and doing this for extended periods can lead to painful RSIs (repetitive strain injuries).

A solution for this is to consider using an external keyboard. These come either with a USB cable connection or a Bluetooth wireless connection and because they are larger your wrists and hands will not be forced into unnatural and uncomfortable positions.

3. Small screen

Laptops generally range between 11″ and 17″ in screen size, which in comparison to monitors which range between 19″ and 27″ (on average), is far smaller. The problem with this is the strain on the eyes that a small laptop screen can cause.

Not only a worry for your eyes, a small laptop screen will force you to lean in to get closer to the screen in order to see more clearly. This is promoting a bad posture which is detrimental to your neck and spine health.

It is recommended to use a laptop with an external monitor when possible, as you make the contents of the screen far larger and more legible. It also allows you to adjust the screen independently which we will touch on in the next paragraphs.

4. Trackpads

Laptops generally have either a trackpad or a small pointer that is used to control the on-screen mouse.

Firstly, the trackpads and pointers are usually less sensitive and not as user-friendly as a regular mouse, so for that reason alone, we recommend using a separate mouse.

Additionally, they require you to pronate your wrist and forearm into a non-neutral position that, over time, will cause issues.

Ideally, you should look at using an external mouse, and in particular, a mouse that is can be used in a completely neutral position and with minimal force exerted on the wrist.

5. Screen and keyboard placement

Ergonomic laptop posture
Source: Mike Papa Ergonomics

The final issue with a laptop is the proximity of the screen and the keyboard.

For proper posture, the screen should be at eye-level and your arms should be by your sides at a 90-degree angle while typing. Due to the size of a laptop, this is nearly physically impossible.

A laptop will force you to either have your hands and wrists in dangerous typing positions, or your shoulders and neck slouched forward.

The previous products we mentioned are an ideal way to combat this issue. By using a separate keyboard or an external monitor (or preferably both), you are able to adjust your screen and keyword independently of each other.

When using an external keyboard, you can then use a laptop stand or even something as simple as a stack of books to set up a correct ergonomic screen height for your laptop.

Think About Posture

As we have seen, one of the major issues of a laptop is the poor posture that it forces you to adopt. There are some simple things that you can think about to help maintain a healthier posture.

Correct laptop posture
This infographic from UC Davisis the perfect illustration of things to consider when using a laptop.

1. Neutral spine

A neutral spine is one where there are no unnatural bends in your spine, what we consider “sitting straight”. You can create a neutral spine from having the right chair height and the right screen height

2. Back supported

A good chair is important for back support, one that supports the lumbar lower region of your spine and prevents you from slouching in your chair. Additionally, you can use a small pillow in the small of your back to accentuate this support.

3. Leg position

Often overlooked when talking about seated posture is the position of your legs. Your feet should always be flat on the ground and your ke=nees, ankles, and hips at 90-degree angles.

This usually requires an adjustable chair or sitting on pillows to adjust your seat height.

4. Relaxed shoulders and arms

It is common for people to hunch their shoulders when typing at a laptop, so try to remind yourself to keep your shoulders relaxed, pulled back, and down. By doing this you naturally straighten your spine too and create a much more neutral spinal posture.

Your arms should also be very relaxed and sit comfortably by your side with the elbows at a 90-degree angle. Many people sit too far from their desk which will force you to reach forward, placing unnecessary strain on your arms and wrists and also rounding your shoulders forward.

5. Straight hands and wrists

Keyboard wrist posture
Source: DashKeyboard

The wrists when typing must maintain the most neutral position possible. Ideally, you should have no bend in the wrist (flexion or extension), no pronation (i.e. twisting of the forearm, and no deviation (the side-to-side movement of the wrist).

As we mentioned before, this is more achievable with an external ergonomic keyboard.

Final thoughts

Some final tips that may help you in the long term with your laptop use. Firstly, even though a laptop is completely portable, it doesn’t mean you have to use it in uncomfortable environments. Try not to use your laptop on your lap or lying down, as the will force you into poor posture. Always try to use a desk and comfortable chair where you can.

Moreover, if you are using a laptop regularly in non-ergonomic postures, try to take regular breaks as often as possible. Ideally a 2-minute break every 30 minutes or a 5-minute break every hour. This will help you relax your eyes, and move your muscles and joints as not to remain in the same position for too long.

Making these small changes in your day-to-day laptop use will help you immensely in the long run, and hopefully be the reason for avoiding issues such as RSIs and back and neck injuries.

This article was reviewed and approved by Dr. Marija Petkovic.

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