Because of the pandemic, many of us are now working from home. While working remotely helps tamp down transmission of COVID-19, it may also contribute to another health problem—back and neck pain caused by hunching over a laptop while sitting on the couch or at the kitchen table. These aches and pains may even linger once things return to normal.
“Many people have little experience with a work-from-home lifestyle and may not have gone into this with an ergonomically designed, dedicated work space,” says Eric K. Holder, MD, a Yale Medicine physiatrist, a doctor who practices physical medicine and rehabilitation. Work stations that were quickly put together may have felt comfortable at first, but they can cause problems with extended use if not designed properly. Often this is due to poor body alignment, leading to imbalances in posture and microtrauma overuse injuries, which can result in aches, pains, and strains, he says.
Dr. Holder answered our questions about how to keep your body safe and healthy when you’re working from home.
Are you seeing problems among patients who work from home?
Many of my patients have told me they’ve noticed the return of nagging musculoskeletal aches and pains, including neck, shoulder, low back, hip, or knee pain, to name a few, for a variety of reasons. Frequently, they report not being able to go to the gym or pool to complete exercises that were previously so helpful, or the stress of having to balance family and work obligations in close quarters. Almost invariably their problems are related to the setup of their work environment.
What is the ideal work-at-home setup?
Well, my “ideal” setup would probably include a quiet room with the right amount of ambient sunlight and panoramic views of a scenic backdrop. However, for most of us, a quiet space, preferably with a door you can close to focus on the task at hand, gets the job done. Ultimately, it is very important that it is optimized for utility, productivity, and comfort.
You should be conscious of postural alignment and in tune with how your body feels when you are in your work space and after you are done for the day. Are you hunching forward to look at your computer screen? Are you feeling increased tension in your neck, shoulders, and lower back? If so, you might want to change a few things.
Here’s what I tell my patients. In an ideal office:
- You should be able to sit properly. Sit upright, with your shoulders relaxed, and avoid hunching forward to look at your screen. Feet should rest flat on the floor, and knees should be bent at 90 degrees, and so should your elbows when you’re using the keyboard. Your thighs and forearms should be parallel with the floor.
- An office chair is best. It will allow you to adjust the height of the chair to fit you. Many are equipped with lumbar (the lower part of the spine) support. Alternatively, you can buy a lumbar support pillow or roll, or you could just roll up a small towel and place it along the “small” of your lower back when you sit for comfort.
- The monitor is at eye level. If you don’t have an external monitor, you might invest in a laptop stand to bring the laptop screen to eye level to optimize viewing. Injuries can develop when you hunch to look down at your screen or crank your neck back to look up at it.
If the ideal setup isn’t possible, what are the most important things?
Choose a work surface—whether it’s a desk, a table, or a counter—that allows you to meet the alignment recommendations I just mentioned. If you are working long hours and an office chair is not an option, it is still recommended that your feet are resting flat on a surface, not dangling (which can put stress on your pelvis and lumbar spine), with your knees at 90 degrees, parallel to the floor. As an example, if your chair is too high, use a crate or a box to rest your feet on. Consider using some form of lumbar support. If an external monitor or laptop stand is not a viable option, elevate your laptop on top of some books piled high enough to bring it to eye level and connect it to an external keyboard to improve your alignment.
Why is hunching so bad?
Good posture has been shown to have a wide range of benefits on a person’s physical and psychological well-being, even improving confidence and mood.
Poor posture predisposes us to increased wear and tear. It leads to muscle imbalances due to overuse of some muscles and underuse of others. It puts people at risk for neck strain, places undue stress on the cervical spine, and leads to tightness of the chest, neck, shoulder, and back muscles. Over time, bad posture eventually can contribute to degenerative changes to your cervical spine structures, including osteoarthritis and nerve irritation. Poor posture can also lead to a cascade of other musculoskeletal issues in other parts of your body.
That’s why it is so important that you have an optimal work station, and take walking, standing, and stretching breaks throughout the day to reset your body.
What about eye strain?
Your lighting and computer setup are crucial. It’s important that your room has adequate lighting to minimize the stress on your eyes. My colleagues and The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommend that you should sit about 25 inches from the computer screen to reduce eye strain. You should try to adjust your screen’s brightness to match the level of light around you. If you find that the screen glare bothers you, there are matte screen filters that can reduce it. Also, there is the 20-20-20 general rule of thumb to reduce eye strain. This means taking breaks from looking at your screen every 20 minutes and focusing on an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This will give your eye muscles a break. Also, we tend to blink less when looking at our computer screens, so it might help to make a conscious effort to blink a bit more when working from home to keep your eyes moist.
It’s easy to sit a lot at home. How often should you get up?
This certainly can be true—working from home has the potential to be more sitting-centric and can lead to bad postural mechanics. In an ideal scenario, you would take a break from sitting at least every 30 minutes for at least one to two minutes, incorporating activity, whether it be a short, easy walk across the room or more vigorous exercise to get your heart pumping.
Other options include placing your computer on a high counter and standing intermittently while you are doing work throughout the day. Instead of taking your phone calls at your desk, stand up and walk around your house or in a quiet area outside when you’re on the phone. I know these things may be challenging depending on your work day, but as a general rule, try to move more and sit less, knowing that some physical activity is better than none.
Is there specific advice that you follow at home?
I pretty much adhere to taking breaks, having a good workstation setup, and trying to be mindful of my posture throughout the day. I also find using a dictation device to be very helpful for me—it reduces my time spent typing and using a mouse. Even if your work-at-home situation isn’t perfect, I think even small improvements have the potential to make a big difference.