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Self help for desktop and laptop VDU users

Over Andrew Gilmour's 30 years in practice, back problems caused by computer use have increased enormously. As laptops have become more powerful, they have become popular for 'all day' use and this brings a particular crop of problems for backs and necks.
The more you use a computer, whether for work or leisure, the more important it is to consider the posture you adopt and your patterns of use. The effect is cumulative and can creep up until you have an unexpected problem.
This advice is invaluable for desktop and laptop users:-

If you use a VDU at work or at home you may develop symptoms which relate to your sitting posture or the way you habitually use the equipment. Andrew Gilmour regularly sees patients with these problems which can be severe enough to render them unable to work.

Part of Andrew's role is to alert you to these difficulties many of which can be minimised by selecting appropriate equipment, attending to the design of your workstation and organising the task at hand.


  • Physical symptoms include neck and shoulder pain, headaches and low back pain which can affect the legs.
  • Repetitive strain injury (RSI) which covers a range of conditions caused by over use of muscles, tendons and joints of the forearms.
  • Visual fatigue leading to red or sore eyes and headaches. VDU work does not damage eyes, but if you have impaired vision (maybe without knowing it) you will more easily suffer the effects of tiredness and stress.
  • General fatigue and stress can be suffered as a result of the way work is organised. Too high a workload, lack of control over its planning, under utilisation of skills and social isolation are known to contribute.


You can make a real difference by reviewing your working conditions and making simple improvements.

Your sitting position

  • You should adjust your chair so your knees are at a right angle and your feet flat on the floor. A footrest can be helpful.
  • Your hips should be at a right angle so your spine is upright and supported up to the mid shoulder area. You should be able to recognise that your back is upright and shoulders relaxed rather than leaning forward and tense.
  • Your chair should be able to fit under the desk at this height. Remove the arms if necessary, or the desk may need blocks to raise it.
  • If you sit in the correct position, with your elbows at a right angle, your hands should rest on the keyboard with your wrist in a neutral position. You may need to adjust the tilt or add a tilt mechanism. Wrist raisers can be helpful. If there is insufficient space for your forearms the monitor may need to be moved further away.

The equipment

  • Your seat height and back rest should be adjustable. The chair itself should be comfortable. If in doubt spend some time trying a number of different types or we can advise you. Choosing the right chair is extremely important and often not as expensive as you might think.
  • You should sit directly facing the screen rather than twisting your body or neck to see the screen.
  • You may need a document holder to bring work close to the screen and avoid refocusing stress.
  • Remove hazards and organise your space so that you can change position easily. Distance yourself from noisy machines.

Planning your work

  • It is extremely important for you to have control over planning your work. This way you can mix your tasks so that you are not constantly ‘locked’ to your screen. You should be able to plan regular short breaks and be able to move around if you develop minor aches.
  • A proper lunch break will help particularly if you can take a short walk. Ensure you drink enough fluid.
  • Take into account whether you are tired, unwell under stress or suffering the latest cold bug and structure your work accordingly.
  • If you start to develop physical symptoms which are consistently increasing you should be extra conscious of your posture and work planning.

Other factors

  • Lighting should be comfortable, not too bright or gloomy. Be prepared to change the intensity of light bulbs or fit blinds to remove glare.
  • Temperature should be warm enough in winter, but not subject to overheating from machines in summer.
  • Ensure you have enough training to enable you to be comfortable using your software rather than fighting it.
  • Check the screen to confirm it is clean and the font is legible.
  • Think about the tasks you perform most often. Do they involve twisting or awkward movements? If they do, can you help the situation by rearranging the desk?
For laptop users
The nature of the laptop is that its' use has 2 main problems:
  1. because the keyboard is narrow it encourages the shoulders to roll forwards and this is worse if you use the central mouse rather than a separate one.
  2. Because the screen is close to the keyboard you will drop your head forwards
The combination of these is an ergonomic disaster for necks and backs. If you use a laptop for any length of time without a solution such as the following, it is not 'if' you will get a problem, it is 'when'.
The answer is to buy a laptop stand and a cordless keyboard and mouse. You can see the setup at although both are cheaper at an outlet such as Staples where a stand is around £25 (January 2011) and the keyboard and mouse £20 (January 2011) which is cheaper than visits for treatment after the event!


These will help reduce the effects of a static position at your workstation. If you are seated for an hour or more you could use the following exercises.

  • Hand stretch - Clench both fists, count ‘one, two’ stretch your fingers as wide apart as possible and count ‘one, two’. Repeat this 5 to 10 times.
  • Shoulder rolls - Place the tips of your fingers on the top of both shoulders whilst sitting. Rotate your arms as if drawing circles with both elbows 5 to 10 times clockwise and again anti-clockwise. Repeat this exercise 5 to 10 times.
  • Hug stretch - Grasp one elbow with your other hand and pull across your body as if you were hugging someone. Hold, release and swap to the other side. Repeat this exercise 5 to 10 times.
  • Neck stretch - Lower ear to shoulder. Hold, release and repeat on the other side. Repeat this exercise 5 to 10 times.
  • Chin tuck - Keeping your head level, slide your chin back as if to make a double chin, hold and release. Repeat 5 to 10 times.


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