As a Physiotherapist I try to keep my finger on the pulse of new research coming out that may affect the way I can help people to mange their injuries. Being a digital nomad, I have a keen interest in how laptop use impacts the body. This week I was very interested, therefore, to read a new research paper reviewing the management of neck pain in office workers.
Although office workers are generally on desktop computers, not laptops, the findings of this literature review are still extremely relevant to location independent laptop workers.
Around half of all people who work on a computer develop neck pain. That is a depressingly huge amount. Nothing could end your digital nomad dream faster than being unable to earn an income due to pain in your neck preventing laptop use.
This article collated findings from 27 different research studies that had a few key things in common:
- The subjects were office workers that had neck pain
- There was some kind of intervention trialed to help the neck pain, eg exercises, stretches, breaks, education or ergonomic changes
- The intervention could be carried out at work (ie with minimal equipment)
A Word on Research Quality
Just because a study has been done, does not mean that the results are to be taken for gospel. If a study is poor quality, we tend to seek better quality studies to back up the results. If a study is considered high quality, we tend to stand up and take notice.
Qualities of a good quality study include:
- Use of an automated system to assign the research subjects to receive the intervention or the control (no intervention)
- It is ensured that all subjects were adequately similar before interventions started
- Interventions do actually get carried out, and most or all subjects are followed up
There was high quality research indicating that strength exercises were effective in reducing neck pain in computer workers. It was shown that the effect was better when those exercises focused more specifically on strengthening the neck and shoulder area.
These effects were generally gained from 20-minute strength training sessions 3 times per week, which were continued for a minimum of 10 weeks.
There was conflicting, moderate to low quality evidence around the effect of general fitness exercise on managing neck pain. It seemed to me that a number of these studies used a 1 hour a week exercise protocol. I would be interested to see good quality studies measuring the impact of shorter, but more frequent general fitness programs.
Ergonomics refers to computer set up, eg the height of the screen, the position of the chair, the location of the mouse etc. The research was not strong in this area, making it difficult to draw any conclusions as to whether ergonomic adjustments are useful or not. The review is not saying that ergonomic adjustments are not helpful, it is just identifying that the research investigating these interventions was not great quality, making us hesitant to draw any conclusions.
This is an area that more research needs to be done
Firstly, if you are not doing any regular strength training, it is definitely time to start. If you travel, body weighted or resistance band strength exercises are effective. I will show you some example programs in the weeks to come.
Second, if you have found things that decrease your own neck pain when working on your laptop, do them. I personally feel that frequent changes of position are helpful, and that ergonomic aids that allow you to work in improved positions also help.
If you have any questions, be sure to let me know.
Xiaoqi Chen et al. Workplace-Based Interventions for Neck Pain in Office Workers: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Physical Therapy. 2018; 98, 40-62.