Until recently, most people with neck pain could blame their distress on an injury or an awkward sleeping position. Now, with the popularity of handheld tablet computer devices, “tablet neck” (aka “iPad neck”) is creating a whole new group of neck pain sufferers.

Due to the increasing numbers of people plagued by this nagging problem, researchers at University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), wanted to find out who is most susceptible to tablet neck—and what can be done to prevent it…or to at least ease the discomfort.

Their findings are reassuring for those hard-core tablet users—and perhaps surprising in the gender breakdown for pain…

Study details: For the study, which was published in Journal of Physical Therapy Science, researchers surveyed 412 college students, staff, teachers and alumni about their tablet-using habits and any neck or shoulder distress. Stiffness, soreness, and aches and pains in the neck, upper back/shoulders, arms/hands or head were the most common complaints. A whopping 55% of those surveyed reporting moderate discomfort…and 15% saying that they had lost sleep because of the pain.

Surprising findings: Even though it’s reasonable to assume that the more time you spend using a tablet, the more neck pain you’d have, the study suggests that’s not the case. Instead, specific postures were at the root of most of the pain problems.

For example, tablet neck was most often reported when individuals used the device while sitting on a surface without back support, such as on the floor or on a stool…or when the tablet was placed on the user’s lap while he/she slouched over it.

A habit of slumping over your tablet and stretching your neck forward can create strain on the spine, which commonly leads to aches and pains in the neck, shoulders and upper back. Even sitting at a desk with the tablet flat in front of you can cause the problematic forward slump.

The study also uncovered a distinct gender gap. Women were more than twice as likely as men to report symptoms of tablet neck. Researchers theorized that this could be due to the fact that women were much more likely to use their tablets while sitting on the floor, which contributes to slouching.

What helps: Because only 46% of those who reported discomfort said they would stop using their tablets, the researchers offered some advice to keep tablet neck at bay. Their recommendations…

  • Sit in a chair with a supportive back.
  • Use a stand for your tablet rather than placing it on a flat surface, and attach an external keyboard so that you can maintain a more upright posture.
  • Wear a posture-reminder device, which will beep or vibrate every time you slouch. These devices, sometimes called “posture trainers” or “posture coaches,” are available online.

Also: Especially for women, who tend to be smaller and less muscular, strengthening the neck and back muscles through exercise helps prevent neck pain.

Bottom line: Instead of giving up your beloved tablet computer or e-reader, making a few easy tweaks to your habits can greatly reduce your risk for tablet neck.

For another effective way to prevent neck pain, read here for advice about choosing the right pillow.

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