My laptop wants to kill me
June 9, 2005 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Why does my laptop make me sick?

I recently acquired a laptop after having a desktop for over 15 years. I'm thrilled, but I'm finding if I'm on it for over 30 minutes, I start to get a headache similar to the one I get if I'm on my cell phone for an extended period of time. I also experience a nausea akin to motion sickness. I wondered if it was because the scrolling speed was a little faster than I was used to, but I slowed it down and still felt the nausea. This has been consistent with each time I've used it. Does anyone have an explanation and, if so, a solution to keep the achy head and belly at bay? I love my new laptop and would like to use it without feeling like I'm going to puke all over it.
posted by Zosia Blue to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you ever used an LCD screen before? This change could be causing your problem. Others have reported similar symptoms.

A few things to try:

1. Hook a CRT to the laptop to see if you still experience discomfort.
2. Change your program backgrounds to use dark colors (deep greys, even black.)
3. Enlarge your fonts and icons without changing the resolution of the display.
posted by xyzzy at 7:51 PM on June 9, 2005

Just a thought- was your desktop equipped with a CRT as opposed to an LCD screen? Some people a reportedly sensitive to the "flicker" of the fluorescent tubes that illuminate the LCD.

(on preview- what xyzzy said.... sigh.
posted by pjern at 7:54 PM on June 9, 2005

Response by poster: Weird, I have spent some time on an LCD, but all very recently (my boyfriend's new LCD doubles as our TV). I didn't notice any specific symptoms while using his screen, but that article really describes what I feel almost perfectly. I have trouble with fluorescent lighting, as well, so this would make sense. I wonder if this is the cause? I'll try your suggestions. Thanks.
posted by Zosia Blue at 7:59 PM on June 9, 2005

Did you also switch to using wireless Internet when you made the switch to laptop? I don't know if wireless Internet signal (waves?) is anything like wireless phone, but studies are coming out about brain cancer/damage associated with cell phones, so maybe you're just extremely sensitive to the waves?

It's probably the monitor though.
posted by librarina at 7:59 PM on June 9, 2005

Response by poster: Librarina, I did switch to wireless, as well, which would explain the cellphone-ish headaches. I didn't even think of that. I'm completely clueless as to the cellphone/wireless wave connection, but it sounds convincing. My body is extemely sensitive to environmental changes, so this would make sense, as well. I hope I'm not doomed to a wired life.

You guys are good.
posted by Zosia Blue at 8:04 PM on June 9, 2005

Replace your fluorescent tubes with full-spectrum tubes. It may make a big difference for that problem.
posted by yclipse at 8:22 PM on June 9, 2005

If you think scrolling is part of the problem, practice advancing a full screen at a time (in Mac browsers, the spacebar usually does this in browsers; not sure of the Windows equivalent, but the PageDown button should work cross-platform in most programs). When my eyes get tired, this trick has often helped stave off that "seasick" effect.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 8:29 PM on June 9, 2005

The problem is most likey the Cold Cathode Flourescent Lamp (CCFL) that lights up the LCD display of the laptop inside.

The frequency of the "flash" probably varies from laptop to laptop, and also between various lamp and driver circuit models.

It's probably also likely that there's some frequency interference between flashing of the lamp and the refresh/redraw rate of the LCD.

Another consideration should be ergonomics. People use and posture themselves differently when working on a laptop vs. a desktop.

Also, consider the heat of the laptop on your lap. The heat from a laptop will heat up your blood supply really quickly through the major arteries in your legs. I know I used to get woozy when I used a laptop in my lap too long and I'd find myself just feeling too warm and kind of sweaty in general.

As for WiFi, I wouldn't totally discount any effect from it. But WiFi signals are measured in dozens to a few hundred microwatts, and - as far as I know - full-strength cell signals are still measured at about 1 watt to 5 watts, depending. (But rarely these days. A decent digital cell connection should be also in the few hundred microwatt range, but probably more than a WiFi signal.)
posted by loquacious at 9:05 PM on June 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

It's not the WiFi any more than the FM radio. Waves are not giving you headaches. It's most likely the monitor. I have a difficulty with refresh rates below 70Hz, for instance.
posted by Monochrome at 9:21 PM on June 9, 2005

Another possibility -- the laptop screen is unlikely to be the same distance from you as the monitor. This causes me problems eyesight-wise, unless I wear special specs, and the eyesight problems spill over into bodily sensations (though not nausea.) Maybe worth checking with an optometrist?

Sometimes it's nicer to use a laptop with external monitor and keyboard plugged into it (a set at home and a set a work) and only use the laptop alone when you must.
posted by anadem at 9:40 PM on June 9, 2005

Had your eyes checked lately?
posted by realcountrymusic at 5:20 AM on June 10, 2005

It might be a simple matter of ergonomics. I've found I get headaches when using my laptop for too long, but only if I have it positioned too low, like on my lap. I'm a tall guy, so I tend to crane my neck to see the screen. Holding your neck/head in a weird position for any time can be the problem.

At what part of your head do the pains seem to start?
posted by SteveInMaine at 5:51 AM on June 10, 2005

My money's on the fluorescent backlight inducing a migraine.

Try having a cup of coffee and an aspirin before computer use and see if the problem persists.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:12 AM on June 10, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, guys. I do have slowly declining eyesight (already pretty horrible, but getting worse), but I have a handle it with glasses and contacts, etc. The more and more I read, however, I would bet it was the LCD screen. So different LCD screens might have various refresh rates? Because I just remembered I did use a laptop exclusively for a four month period a while back and had no problems. I also don't have any problems, as mentioned, when I use my boyfriend's computer, which has an LCD. I'm a little disappointed because the reason I got a laptop in the first place was to be more portable (which makes the idea of docking it with a CRT every time a little unappealing).

As for replacing the tubes -- is that pretty costly? It sounds like an attractive option, otherwise. I'm going to try the other options, as well (though, I can't seem to figure out how to turn down the brightness on this thing), but am I pretty much screwed in the long run? Is this something I would eventually adjust to? I had all these dreams of prancing in far-away meadows, all the while typing up brilliant novels on my laptop. Or, at least, just procrastinating in coffee shops.

nakedcodemonkey, I started scrolling with the pagedown, and that seems to have alleviated the motion feeling. Thanks.
posted by Zosia Blue at 7:20 AM on June 10, 2005

Laptop computers are an ergonomic nightmare.

The right way to set up a computer and chair is to set the chair height so your thighs are horizontal when your feet are flat on the floor, then set the keyboard height so your forearms are horizontal as you type, then set the monitor height so the top edge of the screen is at eye level when you're sitting up straight. Also, make sure that the monitor is directly in front of you, not shifted over to one side.

With a laptop, you basically have a choice of making the keyboard way too high or making the screen way too low, and a choice of having the keyboard too far away or the screen too close.

Using a laptop for any length of time will certainly make your upper back and neck very tense, which will often lead to headaches and sometimes cause nausea. The fiddliness and central positioning of the typical laptop mouse-substitutes doesn't help, either.

Holding a cell phone to the side of your head for a long time will also tense up your upper back, so it makes sense that you get the same symptoms.

Next time you feel bad, try standing up as straight as you can, reaching for the sky while standing on tiptoe, then doing a few guitar-hero-style arm circles on both sides. If that makes you feel better, you can be pretty sure your problem's purely ergonomic.

Fix it by setting up your desk with a stack of phone books to sit the laptop on top of at a comfortable viewing distance, and plug in a standard keyboard and mouse. You can leave all that stuff behind on your desk if you and your laptop are out and about, but for lengthy sessions your body will thank you for setting your workspace up properly. Also, remember to have a five minute break every half an hour or so.

I've been using my laptop as a desktop replacement this way for years, and it's definitely more comfortable. I find the builtin LCD screen far less flickery than most CRT's.
posted by flabdablet at 7:59 AM on June 10, 2005

I don't know if wireless Internet signal (waves?) is anything like wireless phone, but studies are coming out about brain cancer/damage associated with cell phones, so maybe you're just extremely sensitive to the waves?
posted by librarina at 7:59 PM PST on June 9


Goddammit, look shit like this up before spreading misinformation. You are exactly wrong. How fucking irresponsible.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:57 AM on June 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

Actually, she's right: studies are coming out about brain cancer/damage associated with cell phones.

So far, all the studies have been negative: that is, they show no association between cell phone usage and brain cancer or brain damage.

It's important to be aware of this when telling people that cell phones cause brain cancer: that you're spreading a frightening rumor that has never been substantiated with any evidence.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:40 PM on June 10, 2005

Though some recent studies have been positive, correlating cell phone use with tumours.

In addition to what's been mentioned, LCDs can also cause feelings of sickness by presenting a different image brightness or contrast to each eye, which your brain struggles to equalize. (If you can rotate your display into portrait mode, you'll notice this fairly quickly because the screen is more height-sensitive - turn it 90-degrees and the difference in angle between your eyes is sufficient to see noticably different brightness). Tablet-PC users flick their machines between landscape and portrait, so are generally more aware of this one.

To guard against this, try moving your head back further from the screen (more than 2 feet) - it's not an ideal solution, since you may have to increase your font size, but maybe it will help. Also ensure your eyes are level (ie on eye not higher than the other, such as if using the screen while lying sideways on a couch)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:58 PM on June 10, 2005

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