The Covid-19 pandemic has changed just about everything in our lives, including the drastic increase in working from home. It’s a trend that’s bound to continue, as countless people have gotten used to the convenience of working in their pajamas without needing to commute to the office. But for some, working from home has, literally, become a pain.
Working from home likely means you’re moving less and sitting longer. Chances are, you are not racing to catch the train, going out to lunch with co-workers, or walking to the copier throughout the day.
“That moving helps keep joints lubricated and the body a little more flexible,” says physical therapist David Rivera, area director and clinic director of Ivy Rehab in Libertyville.
The lack of lubrication is the equivalent of not warming up before exercise, putting you at risk of injury when you do move. Also, prolonged sitting leads to more stress and strain on the lower lumbar spine and neck, Rivera says.
Since the pandemic began and workers pivoted to home offices, Rivera says he has seen an increase in patients with lower back, neck, and shoulder pain, headaches, and generalized stiffness — issues he’s unofficially dubbed “work from home syndrome,” mainly caused by sitting for long periods of time.
As people continue to work from home, even though many Covid-19 restrictions are lifting, it’s important to get out and move your body to prevent injuries.
“Motion is lotion,” Rivera says. “Get up and move more often. Your body needs it, wants it, and benefits from it.”
Poor home office setup
Still, inactivity isn’t the only problem. Poor workspace setup leads to poor posture, bad ergonomics, and a host of physical issues.
“A lot of times, people at actual offices have ergonomics specialists come in to make sure everything is appropriately placed [to accommodate the body],” Rivera says. “Most people don’t have that type of setup at home.”
This past year, many of physical therapist Joseph Hanley’s patients have confessed to him that they make do with what they have: using a stack of books as a makeshift work surface or standing at the kitchen counter as a desk.
Hanley, who works at Illinois Bone & Joint Institute in Lincolnwood and in Chicago’s Sauganash neighborhood, suggests people reorganize their workstation to make sure it’s set up ergonomically by:
- Keeping computer screens at eye-level.
- Sitting with your legs comfortably positioned for a 90-degree bend at the knees and hips.
- Adding a lumbar-support back cushion to your chair.
- Positioning your keyboard or desk chair for your elbows to be at a 90- to 110-degree open angle.
Not prioritizing an ergonomic setup has resulted in a lot of pain for a lot of people. More people, Hanley says, are experiencing radiculopathy — symptoms that result from a pinched nerve as it exits the spinal column, giving rise to numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness in the neck, arms, back, or legs.
“A lot of times it’s related to posture and the positions we maintain for everyday activities,” Hanley says. To prevent this type of pain, he suggests getting up often, moving around, or frequently changing your position to work different muscles and rest the muscles that were working.
The cost of sitting all day
Sitting all day has the potential to cause more than pain. The lack of movement poses physiological risks, such as high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure.
“Sitting is the new smoking,” says physical therapist Jason Kart, owner of Core Physical Therapy in the Loop. “When you sit for long periods of time, it causes poor circulation, because we’re made to walk, and our muscles act as a pump to push blood back to the heart.”
Stagnation increases the risk for dangerous conditions like deep vein thrombosis — blood clots that usually form in the legs. The best defense: movement.
Even doing simple movements like getting in and out of your chair with repetition, taking a short mid-day walk, breaking to do a household chore, and utilizing any exercise equipment you have at home — treadmill, hand weights, bike, or rowing machine — can help prevent injuries, Rivera says. He also suggests trying out any of the beginner’s yoga or Pilates videos widely available online.
Shoulder and foot pain
In addition to treating typical neck and back pain, Kart has seen some of what he calls “oddball” cases: knee pain caused by walking barefoot around the house for a year and shoulder pain from typing.
“Footwear makes a difference for not putting stress on your knees,” Kart says. “Whenever your foot hits the ground, a reflection of forces goes into the ground and comes back up into your body. When you have shoes on, it helps dampen some of that force.” Once his patients resumed wearing shoes, he says they reported less pain.
With more people hovering over their home computer keyboards for long stretches of time, Kart is hearing increased reports of shoulder pain due to abnormal posture and stress on the shoulders’ rotator cuffs. While shoulder pain usually accounts for 10% to 15% of Kart’s caseload, lately that rate is closer to 50%, he says.
His solution is a standing workstation. “It keeps your arms lower than the rest of you and keeps your elbows next to you, so you’re not using your shoulders,” Kart says. “You’re using more of your elbows [directly] in front of you, instead of reaching out in front of you.”
Rivera stresses that a physical therapist’s early intervention prevents aches and pains from getting worse. It also helps you feel better and return faster to the activities you want to do. It’s important to check out any new pain that might come from working at home, he says.
“Your body is a fantastic machine,” Rivera says. “If you’re not feeling well, it’s trying to tell you something. You should listen to it and get it checked out.”
That is exactly what Chicago resident and art teacher Rebecca Primm did. She had fallen and fractured her elbow. But a switch from teaching ceramics and digital art in a classroom to instructing students virtually over a computer made it difficult for Primm to heal. Every time she used a mouse, pain shot from her wrist to her elbow.
“I could last about five minutes before I couldn’t do anything because it was extremely painful,” Primm says. She saw Kart for eight weeks. “Computer-based activities were making her symptoms worse,” Kart says. “With joint mobilizations and exercise, she got considerably better.”
Now, Primm is teaching virtually without pain. She recognizes when she needs to take a break and stretch, and she makes sure her students move and stretch, too — a reminder many of us could also use.