NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Computers may be more than a proverbial pain in the neck; using them for extended periods may actually cause or aggravate neck pain, at least in teenage schoolkids.

Among students enrolled in grades 10 to 12 at schools in Western Cape, South Africa, “there was a steady increase in the report of neck pain as the number of hours using the computer per week increased,” physiotherapist Leonie Smith told Reuters Health.

In 2006, Smith, at Stellenbosch University in Tygerberg, South Africa, and colleagues assessed duration of computer use and reports of headache and neck pain among 1073 students (65 percent girls), who were 16 years old on average.

Nearly half the students (48 percent) attended schools that used computers, the researchers report in the journal Cephalalgia.

Of the students enrolled in schools with computer training, 43 percent used computers for 8.5 hours or more per week. The investigators noted similar duration of use in just 5.5 percent of the students enrolled in schools without computer training.

“No clear association could be found between high hours of computer use and the presence of headaches,” said Smith, despite common reports of headache among the students, and particularly female students.

By contrast, neck pain was more common among students who also reported longer hours of computer use, regardless of computer availability at school.

For instance, among the students who spent 5 or fewer hours using a computer each week, about 16 percent reported neck pain; among students reporting 25 to 30 hours of computer use a week, nearly 48 percent reported neck pain.

Smith’s team says their findings “have confirmed the need to educate new computer users (school students) about appropriate ergonomics and postural health.”

SOURCE: Cephalalgia, February 2009.