09/01/2010 09:36 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Laptop Slumpers, Beware!

If you've spent any time in a coffee shop lately, you've no doubt noticed the following phenomena:
1) Despite our best public health efforts, whipped cream-capped mocha-chino-frenzies aren't going anywhere.
2) People are waaaay too trusting with their laptops, asking complete strangers, "Will you please watch my stuff while I run to the bathroom?"
3) Self-employed worker bees are hunkered down at practically every table, hunched over their laptops like modern-day Quasimodos.

For a nearly a decade, I was one of these hunchbacks. As a full-time freelance health writer, I'd spend hours on end slumped over my Dell, BlackBerry crunched between my ear and my shoulder as I interviewed - ah, the irony - physicians, physical therapists, dietitians and more.

That all came to a crash-and-burn ending one sunny May morning two years ago, when my husband made me laugh while we got ready for our day. I bent over in hysterics, but when I stood back up, my upper back and neck seized up with a force so violent I could barely move. Then it was hysterics of another sort. I would ultimately be diagnosed with a bulging neck disk - the result of years of deplorable laptop posture combined with lifting too-heavy weights and executing some questionable yoga positions (bad Plow!) To the rescue: A painful year-long road of MRIs, physical therapy appointments, and a not insignificant number of muscle relaxants chased with dirty martinis.

If you're like me - young, healthy, workout regularly -- you never stop to wonder if poor posture could return to haunt you. It's like fretting over sun damage in your teens: No matter how many times your mother nags you to wear sunblock, the protective veneer of young makes you feel indestructible and you reach for the oil. But the aching truth is back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old, with more than 26 million of women and men between the ages of 20-64 affected.

My favorite piece of advice came from my friend Ali, a physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic (so you know she knows her stuff!): "Imagine tucking your shoulder blades into your back pocket." Try it now. If you follow the visual, your shoulders will automatically draw down, your armpits will pull towards your tush, and your sad slump will be gone. Strangers and friends alike will compliment you on your excellent posture. And your back and neck pain will probably be instantly relieved.
Some more perfect posture tips:

-Revamp your work station. Ask your employer for an ergonomic evaluation or purchase a laptop stand and wireless keyboard (I got mine from Amazon and RadioShack, respectively.) A raised screen means you no longer need to gaze down at an unhealthy angle.
-Use a Bluetooth. Yes, they look dorky...but not half as dorky as the neck brace I had to wear after all that phone crunching mangled my cervical disks! Or work it Real Housewives-style and use speakerphone!
-Revamp your wardrobe. You can dress to strengthen your posture with garments like lucy's Perfect Core Racerback tank: Power mesh inserts support your abs, reminding you to engage your midsection. Some people feel like Spanx and other shapewear encourage them to stand up straighter, too.
-Stop texting Twilight-sized messages. Chronic texters, step away from the Crackberry and follow this tip from Fairfax, VA-based physical therapist and American Physical Therapy Association spokesperson Patrice Winter: Open your hands as wide as possible, spreading all fingers, then close into fists. Do a few shoulder rolls or punch arms towards the sky to unlock cramped elbows and shoulders. Because cramped muscles and pain are nothing to LOL about.