Those of us who spend the majority of our waking hours typing away on a keyboard have long known about the potential for carpel tunnel and other factors known as "ergonomic risk". But what of touchscreens?
Most of the consensus is that they are no better than laptops or desktops. They have their pros and cons in comparison, but overall touchscreens are thought of less in terms of stress injuries that could result from their use.
Dr. Franklin Tessler, senior vice chair of radiology at the University of Alabama, writes for Info World that while most people focus on the dangers of using smartphones and tablets while walking and driving, there are other "perils lurking behind touchscreen devices." Common injuries of both touchscreen and traditional PCs are repeated motion related injuries, poor posture and eyestrain. Many of these injuries have been abated with new technologies and techniques for PCs, but Tessler says little has been done with consideration for touchscreens.
Tessler says that if we thought posture was bad with PC and laptop use, tablets and smartphones are even worse because of users ability to use them in a range of positions -- usually bad ones (Related: Check out this Blaze article on "text neck"):
Your neck and the cervical spine that supports it are highly susceptible to poor posture, which can compress or stretch on the nerves that exit the spinal cord. Resist the temptation to bend your neck forward or backward, and especially avoid turning your head or tilting it to one side or another for prolonged periods. Take frequent breaks, and if you feel any pain, numbness, or tingling, stop what you're doing immediately and find a more comfortable position.
Tessler also states that both horizontal and vertical touchscreens (horizontal being the most prominent) have issues with either making you strain your neck to see and wrists to type or tire your muscles while reaching forward against gravity. Tessler recommends if you are using a touchscreen device to read, it should be placed at a steep angle perpendicular to your line of sight, while tapping and typing require a lesser angle of about 30 degrees.
Here are some thoughts the blog Ergonomic Edge had about the challenges of iPads, although the sentiments apply to all tablets:
The Apple iPad has all the Ergonomic challenges associated with the laptop and takes another step in the wrong direction. Typing on the iPad touchscreen while the iPad rests on a flat surface will force the neck into more extreme static neck flexion or extension depending on the users posture. Eye strain is also a risk. Translated -- typing on the iPad for any stretch of time will create neck pain, possible eye strain and could cause injury.
The ability to attach a keyboard to the iPad (the iPad Dock) was a good move by Apple; but no consideration was given into the lack of adjustability of the height of the screen once it is attached to the iPad Dock. This was a missed opportunity by Apple to address head-on the Ergonomic issues related to laptop use (these issues are well-documented). The ability to telescope the iPad up and down would allow the iPad to be adjusted to the proper height for the user, ensuring neutral neck postures and subsequently, comfortable viewing.
Tessler also says that typing and tapping come with stress-related injuries as well. In addition to the same ones users can get from traditional devices, the lack of "tactile feedback" from the virtual keys on a touchscreen mean that users could be striking the screen as much as eight times harder than they would a normal keyboard. Hello finger, wrist and forearm strain. Tessler suggests using a bluetooth or wireless keyboard if you have to type more than a few sentences.
Tessler notes that even holding your finger in the same position in anticipation of a tap -- think pulling back the slingshot on Angry Birds -- could result in muscle strain. Of course there are eye strain issues to go along with mobile device use as well.
Tessler says, regrettably, that is unlikely many significant improvements will occur to make these objects more ergonomic and user friendly from a health perspective, but that many vendors are working on things like improved touchscreen keyboards and tactile feedback.