Laptops are write pain for authors

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IT HAS replaced the humble notepad as the author’s tool of choice, but prolific writers hunched over laptops are beginning to suffer for their art.

Anthony Horowitz, creator of the Alex Rider series, has written 40 books. After delivering Russian Roulette — his latest manuscript — last week, he revealed how writing has become a pain in the neck.

Twelve-hour days before a laptop screen have left him one of the “walking wounded” with sore eyes, backache, neck pain and repetitive strain injury. “As a writer you become obsessive, wedded to the position you place your notebook in relation to the laptop,” he said. “But you don’t realise your body is awfully contorted.”

Despite ensuring that his desk is exactly 82cm (2ft 8in) high and spending huge sums of money on an ergonomic chair and a special laptop stand, writing on the computer is “so much more painful than writing with a fountain pen ever was”, he said.

“You are always peering down at your laptop and it is a big strain on your neck. Back and neck problems are the blight of the modern age and it is something we really need to look at. It is astonishing the number of people injured — the walking wounded.”

Writers are not the only sufferers. Research by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) shows that almost a quarter of Britons complain of back, neck or shoulder pain while using or carrying gadgets and some three-quarters of adults use a laptop daily for work. Chiropractors are treating children as young as 11 for problems resulting from laptop overuse.

Laptops were designed to free deskbound workers and are now replacing desktop computers in many homes. But the unified body design of most of them brings its own problems, according to medical experts.

Awkward positioning of the fingers and body can cause nerve injury to the wrist, while a poor neck position and shoulder posture may give rise to muscle strain and soreness.

Signs of trouble typically come in the form of headaches, wrist pain, tingling in the fingers or thumb and neck and shoulder pain.

Lionel Shriver, 55, the author of 12 novels including the Orange prize-winning We Need to Talk about Kevin, took dramatic steps to avoid aches and pains by refusing to sit at her desk 18 months ago. “I stand for everything now for up to 10 hours a day,” she said.

“I had read so many things about how living a sedentary life sitting down all the time is terrible for you. I have been using a laptop to write since the 1980s and I figured if you are allowed a certain number of hours sitting down, I had certainly used mine up over the last few decades.”

Shriver’s laptop sits on two volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary on a normal-height desk and she sits down only for a daily cup of tea: “At the beginning there were aches in my legs and lower back, but all those pains have gone now.”

Children are also presenting symptoms of chronic pain from laptop overuse. In one recent case an 11-year-old was treated for chronic neck pain after spending his evenings doing his homework with his laptop balanced on the armrest of a sofa and with the television on in the background.

Anthony Horowitz, creator of the Alex Rider books, is among those suffering for his art (Dan Goldsmith)

Rishi Loatey, a BCA spokesman, said: “Fifteen years ago we would typically see people with neck and back problems from a bad night’s sleep or a car accident. Now we commonly see them after [they’ve been] using technology in contorted positions.”

Dr Karen Jacobs, an occupational therapist at Boston University and founding editor of Work, the academic journal, is so concerned about the amount of time children spend on laptops that she has designed an app that reminds them every 30 minutes to take a break from the screen.

Last month she published a study showing that while half of all schoolchildren use a laptop at a desk, one fifth use them on the floor and almost a quarter on their bed.

The study also revealed that an external keyboard and a mouse are less likely to cause neck and shoulder pain than the fixed input devices of a laptop.

“Laptops were designed for portability,” Jacobs said. “I don’t think anyone foresaw the explosion of their use among young people and their portability means they are ergonomically disastrous.”

She advises users to “sit on a chair with the screen raised so the top of the screen is just below eye height. Sit directly face-on with a portable keyboard at a height where your arms are straight out in front of you. And use a portable mouse.”

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