PULLMAN, Wash. – IPad and other tablet PC users increasingly report neck pain associated with use of the popular hand-held devices. Two Washington State University researchers have received funding to investigate how different tablet PC usage patterns potentially affect neck pain.
Anita Vasavada and David Lin, both bioengineering associate professors, were awarded $25,890 from the Office Ergonomics Research Committee. Ergonomics is the study of design of workplace equipment that fits the human body, its movements and abilities. The committee includes representatives from Apple, Microsoft, HP, Dell and many other companies.
Giving industry, consumers knowledge they need
Results from the study could help develop guidelines for consumers on how best to use the devices.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration already has guidelines for computer monitors and their height adjustments, Lin said. Data from the WSU study will become part of the literature OSHA could use to make similar decisions concerning tablet PCs.
Tablet use on the rise
Within the last three years, tablet PCs have reached the hands of 11 percent of Americans, according to a report published in October 2011 by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. 
By 2014, one in five Americans plan to own or purchase a tablet PC, according to Fuze Box, a provider of Internet and mobile based unified communications solutions. One-third of those owners plan to use the device for business.
Tablet PCs generally are used in business environments for emails, note taking, messaging, viewing and creating, Lin said.
Increasing sales and use of tablet PCs in the home and workplace have brought anecdotal association between neck pain, neck muscle fatigue and use of the devices.
“We can’t say definitively that chronic neck pain is caused by use of the devices,” Vasavada said. “However, it is likely that abnormal postures adopted while using tablet PCs increase mechanical loads in the neck; but no studies have examined the mechanical demands on neck muscles while using tablet PCs.”
Calculating muscle demand
Participants in the WSU study will use the tablet PCs in a workplace-like manner, completing reading and keyboarding tasks in different positions – handheld, on a table and in the lap – both with and without stands.
X-rays will be taken to document the neck posture during these tasks.  The data will be used in a computer model to estimate how much muscle force is needed for participants to hold their necks in each posture, Vasavada said.
Excessive forward head positioning can lead to muscle fatigue and compression of joints and tissues, she said. Eventually, this can damage discs, nerve endings and joints.
Study participants sought
About 30 people, with an age range of 18-45, will take part in the study. The age is limited because older people tend to have a higher incidence of neck pain from other causes, Vasavada said.
The researchers are recruiting subjects who have at least one month experience using a tablet PC for the study. To participate, please contact them at vasavada@wsu.edu or 335-7533.