Tablet computers are a fact of modern life. They can also be a serious pain in the neck. Forty-three percent of the U.S. population owns a tablet or an e-reader, according to an industry survey, and users who don’t take care to position themselves properly while using their tablets can develop neck and shoulder pain. “iPad neck” or “tablet neck“ — is a growing problem among Americans — particularly women and young adults — a new study has found.

The findings are of concern, Szu-Ping Lee, lead author of the study, told TheDoctor, because tablets, laptops and e-readers are so popular and widely used for business, school and personal use. “Such a high prevalence of neck and shoulder symptoms, especially among younger populations, presents a significant burden to society.”

Women were more than twice as likely as men to have shoulder and neck pain as a result of tablet use.

Lee and his team surveyed 412 university students, faculty, staff and alumni who used tablet computers. They asked participants about their tablet use and their neck and shoulder complaints.

Stiff or sore necks and aching pain in the neck, upper back or shoulders were the most frequently reported symptoms associated with tablet use. The researchers found that 55 percent of participants reported moderate discomfort, but 10 percent noted severe symptoms. Fifteen percent indicated that their symptoms affected their sleep. Slightly less than half of the participants said they would stop using their tablet when they experienced discomfort.

Women were more than twice as likely as men to have shoulder and neck pain as a result of tablet use. They were also over three times more likely than men to sit on the floor when they used their tablets, and this may be one reason they report more neck pain.

“We are surprised that women have a much higher risk of developing these musculoskeletal issues of the back and shoulder versus men,” said Lee, an assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

Women may be at greater risk for musculoskeletal symptoms because they generally are smaller and have less muscle strength, he explained. They may have shorter arms and narrower shoulders.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, younger people were at higher risk than older adults for developing the neck problems. Professors and other adults tend to stay at their desks more and use computers that are usually set at a height appropriate to the chair or standing desk they use. Students, in contrast, are always on the go, and they take their tablets with them. They often place their tablets on their laps or a bench, or they use the tablet while sitting on the floor. “These situations create an environment for poor neck posture,”said Lee.

“iPad neck” happens when a person is sitting without back support, the way students do when they sit with their tablets on a bench or on the ground. Leaning over a tablet while it is on the user’s lap or looking at it while lying on a bed can cause the kind of neck and upper back strain that leads to problems.

“In order to reduce the risk of long-term neck and shoulder problems, we need to think about how technology like tablet computers affects human ergonomics and posture,” Lee says. He offers a few recommendations to give your back a break: Sit in a chair with back support when you are using your tablet. A “posture reminder,” a small device that clips onto clothing or the skin and beeps to let users know they are slouching, can also be helpful. Finally, try placing your tablet on a stand that allows you to use it in an upright posture.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.