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Computer lab chairs a pain in the neck (and back) for learners
Author: Wilma Stassen
Published: 07/03/2016

The poor seating provided at the computer rooms of several schools in the Western Cape comes under the spotlight during School Health Week, 4 to 8 March.

The chairs learners are currently using in computer rooms at school might be setting them up for a lifetime of back and neck pain.

New research by physiotherapists at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), Stellenbosch University, found that the chairs in school computer labs were mismatched to nearly all (97%) high school students.

"Most of these children don't fit on the chairs at all," says Dr Sjan-Mari van Niekerk, a researcher at the FMHS's Division of Physiotherapy.

For their study they took the measurements of 700 high school learners at 40 schools in the Cape Town area, and compared it to the sizes of the chairs in the computer rooms. Most schools use standard plastic garden chairs which are either too small or too big for most students.

"If the chair is too low the child has to lift their shoulders to reach the keyboard, and when it is too high they have to slouch forward to see the screen," says Van Niekerk.

Often two or three students have to share a computer workstation, causing them to sit at awkward angles in addition to sitting too high or low. "Sometime they have to sit in very unnatural and uncomfortable positions in order to see the screen," says Van Niekerk.

"When they have to keep these positions for the duration of a one- or two-hour class, it causes pain and can lead to permanent posture problems."

Another study by the same unit showed that nearly three quarters of high school learners complain of spinal pain.

"Spinal pain in adolescence is a predictive factor for pain in adulthood. This means that 74% of our high school learners will endure pain as adults. It is a huge problem, because we are sending these children into adulthood with a disadvantage, and it will just become worse," says Van Niekerk.

In contrast to earlier trends in spinal health that proposed sitting still in the "perfect posture", new research suggests that static sitting puts strain on the spine.

According to Prof Quinette Louw, also from the Division of Physiotherapy, the key to spine health for people who sit for long periods during the day is to changes positions regularly in order to avoid straining the musculoskeletal system.

"The principal of 'too much of anything is bad' also applies to your posture. Staying in one position for too long could predispose you to pain – even if you think it is the best position," says Louw. "But regularly changing the alignment of the musculoskeletal system will prevent strain."

Using the measurement of the 700 high school learners in their study, the researchers designed a chair to suit the majority (>80%) of students. The chair has no back or arm rests and the seat is moveable.

"We've tested a prototype and compared it to the regular chair and it allowed for more movement in the pelvis, neck and thoracic spine - which is very promising," says Van Niekerk.

Further testing is being planned and they hope to eventually develop a fitting and affordable chair that can be rolled out to all high school computer rooms.