Tablets Linked to Shoulder and Neck Pain

Is using your device starting to hurt? Learn why, and get tips on how to prevent the discomfort.

Medically reviewed in June 2020

Updated on November 1, 2020

You love your tablet, don't you? With a screen larger than a smartphone yet smaller than a laptop, it's the perfect tool for checking e-mail, watching a movie or reading a book on the go. But the convenience of iPads and other tablet computers may come at a cost: These go-anywhere digital gadgets can contribute to shoulder and neck pain, according to researchers from Harvard's School for Public Health, Microsoft and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The problem develops when you position the tablet flat on a table or on your lap so it forces your head and neck to be "flexed at various low angles for long periods of time," according to the 2012 study, published in Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment, and Rehabilitation.

“Compared to typical desktop computing scenarios, there may be more of a concern of neck and shoulder discomfort,” said lead investigator Jack Dennerlein, of Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health.

Tips for preventing neck and shoulder pain
How can you avoid "tablet shoulder"? First, position your device on a table at its highest angle to avoid looking downward. You can also purchase a specially made tablet stand to elevate the screen to eye level. Try attaching a keyboard when you need to type, as well, and make sure to use a chair with sufficient back support.

If you've already got shoulder and neck pain from bad tablet ergonomics (and your healthcare provider has confirmed that it's simple pain and not something more serious), strength training can help ease it. Try these three exercise moves:

  • Reverse fly: Hold a light or medium weight in each hand. From a seated position and leaning forward slightly, lift your arms straight out to your sides, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Do 1 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps three times a week.
  • Arm rows: Hold a light or medium weight in each hand. Stand with your knees slightly bent and lean forward, keeping your back flat. (Don't lean farther than 90 degrees.) Keep your abs tight. Bend your elbows and pull the weights upward until they are level with your waist. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lift. Do 1 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps three times a week.
  • Upright rows: Stand straight, knees slightly bent, with a light or medium weight in each hand. Grip the weights with your arms hanging straight down and palms facing your thighs. Bend elbows outward and upward, lifting the weights straight up until they are at chest height (with elbows pointing outward). Avoid shrugging your shoulders as you lift. Do 1 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps three times a week.

And if you can’t seem to ease the pain? Check in with your healthcare provider, who can recommend next steps.

Article sources open article sources

JG Young, D Odell, et al. “Touch-Screen Tablet User Configurations and Case-Supported Tilt Affect Head and Neck Flexion Angles.” Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment, and Rehabilitation. 41(1) (2012), pp. 81-91.
SP Lee, YT Hsu, et al. “Gender and posture are significant risk factors to musculoskeletal symptoms during touchscreen tablet computer use.” Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2018 Jun; 30(6): 855–861.

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