10 Ways to Avoid Laptop Torture on the Go

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Todd Meier

If you use a laptop on a regular basis like a lot of people, I have two questions for you. Where are you when you use your laptop (on the couch, in a hotel room, at a coffee house, in bed, on an airplane)? What is the most common position you’re in (sitting up, lounging back, sitting cross-legged on the floor)?

Now think about what those positions and locations can do to your body.

By design, laptop computers fit on your lap. They also can cause significant musculoskeletal1 and visual problems if used for prolonged periods in the wrong position. Back when dinosaurs roamed, you know, the late 1970s, the computer screen and keyboard was a single unit. In other words, there was no hinged screen. The fixed design meant a user had to choose between aligning his or her hand and forearm and having the computer in an optimal viewing position. You couldn’t have both.1

With the development of ergonomic design guidelines, the screen was hinged to the keyboard, allowing some flexibility. Unfortunately, this usually results in laptop users looking downward during use as well as having hands and forearms out of alignment.

Looking down and not aligning your arms for hours on end can become pretty painful and potentially damaging, but there are a few ways to deal with this issue.Keep these suggestions in mind when using a laptop:

  1. Use a separate keyboard and mouse. There are a variety of portable keyboards on the market that will travel well.
  2. Keep the laptop at a comfortable viewing distance. Better yet, connect the laptop to a monitor if you can.
  3. Position the laptop at the appropriate height. You want to be sure your neck is facing straight ahead in a neutral position.
  4. Angle the laptop towards you. If you don’t have access to a laptop riser, try using a 3-inch loose ring binder. Place the binder on your lap so the laptop is angled toward you. This allows you to move your neck and hands closer to a neutral position.2
  5. When seated, prop up your feet. This can be accomplished with a box, suitcase, foot stool or similar item. If you’re sitting against a ridged seatback such as a hard chair or bench, roll a jacket and place it behind you for back support. (Most people don’t mind putting their feet up.)
  6. Keep your elbows level. Always aim to have your elbows level with or slightly higher than the keyboard, at a 90 degree angle.3
  7. Use a chair without armrests. This will allow you greater flexibility and help prevent static postures.3
  8. Avoid bending your head forward. Position the laptop so you’re not bending your head forward. The best way to accomplish this is to sit in a chair that allows you to lean into the backrest. If you have to bend a little, it is best to tuck your chin as opposed to bending your entire neck down, as this is a common cause of strain and fatigue in the neck and shoulder.3
  9. Improvise in the kitchen. If you are at your kitchen countertop or another work surface, telephone books and books are always useful improvisation tools. This will provide you some height adjustability to eliminate having to bend your head down to view your screen.
  10. Get creative on the plane. When flying, try stacking magazines to adjust the height when a food tray is the only option. You also can raise your seat height by using folded blankets and/or pillows. Realistically, though, if you’re not in First Class, just forget it. If you don’t harm your neighbors with your elbows, you’ll get clipped in the chin when the guy in front of you takes a nap. Safety first.

Laptops are useful tools, and sometimes a necessary evil. As technology improves, laptops will be manufactured in ways that allow users to have more control over screen and key positioning. Until then, following these tips should help reduce what some think of as laptop torture.


1 CU Ergo, Cornell University Ergonomics Web. ergo.human.cornell.edu/culaptoptips.html

2 Ergonomics@Work, UC Berkeley’s Ergonomics Program for Faculty and Staff. uhs.berkeley.edu/facstaff/pdf/ergonomics/laptop.pdf

3 University of Wisconsin Occupational Health, Laptop Use Guidelines. fpm-www3.fpm.wisc.edu/safety/occupationalHealth/Ergonomics/LaptopErgonomics/LaptopUseGuidelines/tabid/105/Default.aspx