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The flip side of laptops

The flip side of laptops
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First Published: Mon, Sep 07 2009. 09 36 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Mon, Sep 07 2009. 09 36 PM IST
TOO HOT TO HANDLE?
It is now believed that extremely low frequency (ELF) magnetic fields, such as those emitted by traditional (non-flat screen) computer monitors, as well as laptops with unearthed power sources (such as their batteries), have biological effects that may have the potential to affect the growth of developing tissue, contribute to miscarriage or birth defects, promote the growth of cancer cells, interfere with the cell processes and functions and alter neurological functions.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Although there is no confirmation of ELF radiation from a laptop causing cancer, some scientists suspect that it impairs the ability of T-lymphocytes (the infection-fighting cells of the immune system) to combat cancer.
“There is no scientific proof that these biological effects will happen to people using a laptop in everyday situations, but there is always (a) risk for changes at the cellular level,” says Shyam Aggarwal, head of department, medical oncology, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi.
Remedy: “Stay an arm’s length away from your screen (30 inches or 75cm). If this makes viewing the monitor more difficult, try increasing (the) text size. Also, stay 4ft away from the sides and back of monitors, since fields can be stronger there—this reduces EMF (electromagnetic field) exposure,” says Dr Aggarwal.
Another caution: Consider special precautions if you are pregnant or trying to conceive. Limit the time you spend in front of a computer. “And as far as possible, keep the laptop not on your lap,” says Dr Aggarwal.
ALTERED SENSATIONS
“With a laptop, hands don’t get enough support to rest on while working,” says Dr Sharma. As a result, excessive typing can cause the wrist to press against the edge of the laptop, which makes repetitive stress injury (RSI) to the median nerve much more likely, leading to carpal tunnel syndrome.
“This condition results in pain and tingling in the fingers of the hand,” says Dr Sharma. Dr Vaishya says it also causes numbness, pain and loss of strength in the hand, difficulty in holding (objects) and performing other tasks requiring fine motor skills (such as sewing or writing). “One may also feel altered sensations in the hand,” he adds.
Remedy: Correct hand position while typing is important. Fingers should be in a straight line with the forearm. Wrists should not bend to the side. Dr Vaishya also suggests keeping arms and hands warm.
TROUBLE IN SIGHT
“Prolonged hours on the computer lead to a condition known as computer vision syndrome (CVS). The symptoms include burning, itching, tiredness, redness, aching, watering of the eyes, as well as altered colour perception. When we continuously stare at the monitor, the frequency of blinking is decreased, which causes the eyes to dry and become sore,” says Anita Sethi, consultant and head of ophthalmology, Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon. “Plus glare from the screen, poor positioning of the screen and improper workspace lighting also contribute to the eye strain, which can also lead to tension headaches.”
Remedy: To prevent CVS, “Follow the 20, 20, 20 rule—every 20 minutes, take a break for 20 seconds to look at an object 20ft away,” says Dr Sethi. “Also, consciously blink your eyes each time you take a break. You can even use artificial tears or any lubricant eye drop—keep a vial handy near your workstation to use whenever you feel the burning and tiredness coming on.”
It also helps to use a laptop with a larger and brighter screen. The angle of the screen should be approximately 90 degrees to your line of vision. The centre of the screen should be 7-10 inches below the horizontal line of sight, say experts.
Dr Sethi advises placing the laptop on books or a laptop stand, so that the topmost part of the screen is at, or just below, eye level (for more on eye problems caused by digital devices, see Surf below).
PAIN IN THE NECK
Had a long day working on the laptop? Your neck is stiff, your back is aching. “With a laptop, usually, one needs to bend down to look at the monitor; this incorrect posture leads to pain in the upper back,” says Vivek Sharma, senior consultant, orthopaedics, Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon. “Moreover, the elbow often remains suspended in the air, contracting the muscles of the shoulders and neck. This may even lead to chronic conditions such as cervical spondylosis.”
Rajat Chauhan, CEO and medical director of the Back 2 Fitness chain of clinics and a specialist in sports and exercise medicine, and musculoskeletal medicine says: “Most people carry heavy laptop bags in wrong ways. They just put them on one shoulder and this causes imbalance in the spine. This causes muscle tension in the neck, shoulders and upper, middle and lower back.” The first symptoms are a stiff neck, dull pain all the time and not having a good standing posture.
Remedy: “Laptops must be kept on supports at the same level as our eyes to prevent bad posture,” says Raju Vaishya, president, Arthritis Care Foundation, and senior consultant orthopaedic and joint replacement surgeon, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, New Delhi. Frequent breaks are a must too.
As a preventive exercise, a couple of times a day, rotate your shoulders first backwards, then forwards several times; slowly turn your head side to side several times; stand and stretch gently, reaching for the sky, holding for a few seconds and then relaxing.
As for carting the laptop around, “Keep the bag over both shoulders; better still, get a trolley,” says Dr Chauhan. It is important to work on your physical fitness too, he adds, and make sure your backpack takes your back into consideration too, not just your laptop. Make sure the straps are adjustable to account for varying weights.
AN EMOTIONAL AFFAIR
Becoming a nervous wreck because your laptop has crashed? Look around, it’s very common to be stressed by technological troubles.
“Look out for frequent headaches, bursts of rapid heartbeat, sleep disturbance, increased bad moods or anger, constant tension, unusual lethargy and exhaustion,” says Ashima Puri, consultant psychologist, Aashlok Hospital, New Delhi.
“We already know that those who use the computer and Internet for long periods of time have a decreased amount of time to interact with the people around them, which places them at a higher risk for depression,” says Dr Puri.
Now, there’s another issue to contend with: People can even become emotionally attached to computers and develop feelings for them. “So much that even if it hangs, it causes a lot of negative emotions (and) anger among them,” Dr Puri says—feelings most of us wouldn’t lavish on, say, a bent screwdriver or a split spatula.
Remedy: “Define clearly that you are the master and not the other way round. Time your time on the computer. You must not become a slave to it; spend only so much time on it,” says Dr Puri.
INHERITANCE ISSUES
High-performance laptops seem so cool. Nevertheless, they generate much more heat than the average desktop computer. A study carried out by a group of researchers from the State University of New York, Stony Brook (it appeared in the European journal Human Reproduction in 2004), showed that for a person using the laptop on his lap, the median temperature rise in the scrotum is around 2.6-2.8 degrees Celsius. It is known that a rise in temperature by just 1 degree Celsius in the scrotal sac, which encloses the testes, leads to a 40% decrease in the synthesis of healthy sperm. Further research is needed to investigate a correlation between infertility and keeping a laptop on the lap. However, a decrease in the health and count of viable sperm is certainly indicated.
“Besides, the heat from the laptop on the lap also causes skin and groin burns,” says Dr Sharma.
Remedy: “Yes, we know that a laptop computer was designed to be in your lap, but the fact is, it’s really not safe to (keep it) there for a long time. Place the laptop on another work surface, the way a desktop is used, instead of your lap,” says Dr Vivek.
CONNECT
Take your child’s health to heart
Did you know the first signs of heart disease as fatty deposits in coronary arteries appear by age 3? A new study presented at The Endocrine Society’s 91st annual meeting in Washington this June noted that by age 7, obesity can raise a child’s future risk of heart disease significantly.
Tune their taste: The human tongue has a phenomenal capacity to get used to certain tastes. So offer only healthy foods from the time you start your infant on solid foods
Play at wellness: Don’t let your child be a couch potato. Limit television and video games to an hour a day. Be a role model for half an hour of vigorous play three-four times per week
Don’t let stress strike young: Teach them to de-stress with yoga, deep breathing, appreciation of music and relaxing walks. Instil a positive attitude to life.
Expert: Dr Sunita Maheshwari, senior consultant paediatric cardiologist and head of department, Narayana Hrudayalaya, Bangalore
— Kavita Devgan
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Sep 07 2009. 09 36 PM IST