By June of 2020, the pandemic had transformed the U.S. labor force into one that predominantly worked at home. In fact, 42% of American workers at that time were employed at home, compared to about 25% of employees who worked at their place of business, according to a study by Nicholas Bloom, Stanford University author and economist. “By sheer numbers, the U.S. is a working-from-home economy, with almost twice as many employees working from home as at work,” the study noted.
But while people working at home were protected from getting or spreading COVID-19, they weren’t always helped from an orthopedic standpoint. More than 70% of people working from home complained of such issues as back or neck pain, headaches, difficulty sleeping, eyestrain and more, according to a recent study conducted by computer manufacturer Lenovo.
“Since people started working from home in March and April, we’ve been seeing a high incidence of stiff necks, shoulder pain and low back discomfort caused by hunching over a laptop (versus working at a stationary desktop computer) at seating areas at home that aren’t ergonomically designed to safely and comfortably support work for long periods of time,” said John Gallucci Jr., MS, ATC, PT, DPT and CEO of Woodbridge-based JAG-ONE Physical Therapy. “Compounding this situation is the fact that people have been more sedentary/inactive in 2020 and may also have gained weight as a result of the shutdowns and stay-at-home mandates throughout the year.”
The best posture for working at a computer involves the feet remaining flat on the floor, the knee and hip positioned at 90-degree angles, and the back positioned straight such that the head and shoulders are neutral (not hunched over a laptop).
“After a number of patients reached out to us complaining of pain from working at home, we formulated the ‘COVID-19 Desk Routine,’ a highly-effective series of targeted exercises that will help relax the shoulders, back and neck; keep them flexible throughout the day; and minimize the risk of strain or pain,” Gallucci said.
“As part of the COVID-19 Desk Routine, we recommend that people roll their shoulders backward and forward 20 times each, rotate their chin over each shoulder three times for five seconds each time, bring their ear to each of their right and left shoulders three times each for five seconds each time, and perform a ‘chin tuck flexion,’ bringing the chin to the chest several times to stretch the back of the neck,” Gallucci said.
“We then advise that people working at home engage in a tricep stretch, reaching over their back to their spine and using the other arm to apply pressure three times on each side for five seconds each time. People should also walk around for 10 minutes every hour and do basic movements such as a high leg stretch and knee-to-chest stretches for the lower back.”
“By doing this protocol for a few minutes every hour, people can avoid getting stiff and experiencing aches and pains while working at home,” Gallucci said. “It really works, and we’ve received lots of great feedback from attendees during clinics we’ve hosted.”
Other ideas to help lessen pain while working remotely include the following:
- Choose a Solid Chair — Despite the appeal of home recreational seating areas, Gallucci advises that people refrain from sitting on a couch, on the floor or on a flimsy or high-top chair when working remotely. “Choose a substantial kitchen or dining room chair that’s stationary (versus swiveling) and that provides good support for the back,” he said. “Sitting on the couch can cause stiffness and hunching.”
- Work at Eye Level — To promote a more neutral posture and avoid kyphotic positions (those defined by hunched-over postures and rounded shoulders), Gallucci said that one’s eyes should be centered within their computer screen. “Though many people use laptops today and centering the eyes can be more difficult with laptops, it can be done by propping the laptop up on a special, adjustable laptop stand or on a stack of books and/or getting a portable keyboard to facilitate that,” he said. “The goal is to avoid being in a flexed, hunched or rotated position because this weakens the posterior aspect of the neck and shoulders and can cause the anterior shoulders and back of neck to become tight and stiff.”
- Practice Neutral Posture — “At JAG-ONE Physical Therapy, we teach people what a neutral posture looks and feels like and how the deliberate and mindful practice of that posture during the day will help avoid pain and injury throughout life,” he said. “We also work with patients to get their muscles strong enough to hold that posture through such activities as standing rows, retractions and other targeted exercises.”
“While working from home can be comfortable and convenient, a less-than-ergonomic setup can lead to discomfort that undermines productivity,” Gallucci said. “Remember that a few preventative measures can avoid a lot of pain and that movement is the best thing for the body.”