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Avoiding aches and pains while working from home

By The Health News Team | August 25, 2021
Young man stretching hands over his head while sitting at a desk in front of a computer.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive shift in work life, with millions now working remotely — and in some cases, for the first time. Without a home office, many must make do in less-than-optimal settings, which can cause a variety of aches and pains throughout the body.

Not leaving home to go to work has many people moving a lot less and sitting even more than they did pre-pandemic. “People often underestimate how much walking they do at work and how often they are out of their chairs and workspaces,” explains Dr. David Burnikel, an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Without regular movement throughout the day, existing aches and pains can worsen and new ones may emerge.”

Common ailments of those sitting for prolonged periods in less-than-perfect workspaces are exacerbation of preexisting issues such as carpal and cubital tunnel syndromes and nerve impingement in the cervical spine.

“Some of the issues we see most often are upper and lower back pain and shoulder or arm discomfort,” Dr. Burnikel says. “In addition, ‘startup’ pain — or the feeling of needing to take a few steps to loosen up when you stand from sitting — is a very common symptom of osteoarthritis, and is exacerbated by sitting for prolonged periods of time.”

Improving your home workspace
If you are like many people, you’ve had to create a home office where one did not exist previously — and maybe even one that needs to be moved at the end of the day. Even if you don’t have the same equipment as you did at work, it’s possible to make small adjustments that can cause significant improvements to your positioning and comfort.

Common areas of concern are a desk height that is too low or high, or a chair that doesn’t allow for a comfortable position to sit and work. Having a chair that prevents you from needing to hunch forward or lean back excessively can alleviate a lot of back complaints. Similarly, making sure you are not “reaching” or always working with your arms extended can solve many upper back and shoulder issues.

Dr. Burnikel offers the following tips to help optimize your space and decrease pain:

1. Adjust your work area.
Assess your workspace at home and emulate your office as much as possible. If you use a laptop, purchasing a separate keyboard allows you to put the monitor at the right eye level to keep your head level, while also keeping your arms and wrists in a comfortable position to type. A tabletop desk stand, small shelf or pile of books can be used to get the monitor to the ideal height.

2. Use the right chair.
Find a comfortable chair that allows you to work with your arms comfortably at your side and provides back support and height adjustment so that you do not have to hunch forward or lean back to work. Keep your feet flat on the floor and have your arms at approximately a 90-degree angle. Making sure your equipment is adjusted for your seated height can help keep your body in a good position.

3. Stand up and move.
Get up and walk for five minutes every one to two hours, or try standing for short durations to break up the time you are seated. Standing gets the blood moving and can help you avoid some of the back pain that comes from sitting all day. Wear comfortable, cushioned shoes (not heels) or stand on a padded surface if possible.

4. Pay close attention to your pain.
Keep track of your specific areas of discomfort and see if you can link them to a specific task or a certain time of day. If you notice you’re consistently having low back pain in the afternoon, make it a point to incorporate some stretching, standing and movement in the morning. If you notice your neck hurts from hunching over, adjust your workspace so that you are in a comfortable, neutral position that doesn’t put strain on your neck and shoulders.

5. Maximize your lunch break.
If possible, taking a 20- to 30-minute walk at lunch has been shown to significantly improve low back pain and other musculoskeletal complaints. If you can get out and walk around, do it. Even a short walk can get the blood flowing and help improve body pain. It also gives you a chance to reset, gives your eyes a break from the screen, and allows you to get some fresh air and sunlight, which can help boost your productivity for the rest of your day.

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