WTF Is WFH Doing to My Back?

After over a year of working from home, our backs are in the worst shape they’ve ever been in.

More than a year after WFH became the norm, many of us are still working remotely and wrecking our backs in the process. Our postures and habits probably weren’t great to begin with, but WFH “immediately intensified the situation with even worse ergonomics, and problems surfaced real fast,” says David Koivuranta, owner of Toronto Neck and Back Pain Clinic.

Koivuranta, who also runs Time Health Management, which does ergonomic assessments for office spaces, points to workplace safety training (or lack thereof) as a major contributor to back issues. Office workers, for instance, are taught certain computer programs, but Koivuranta notes employees are rarely taught ergonomics or how to sit at a desk for hours on end without injuring themselves. “There just isn’t a good standard [for safety training for office workers] and it’s compromising workers’ health,” he says.

Overlooking office ergonomics can lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), also known as repetitive strain disorders, which impact muscles, tendons, nerves and joints. An estimated 2.3 million Canadians experience MSDs serious enough that they limit their day-to-day activities every year, according to a 2003 Statistics Canada report. A majority of these injuries and disorders are work-related.

The baseline of bad office ergonomics and lack of workplace safety training created a newly painful situation during the pandemic, when our homes suddenly became our offices.

(Related: 5 Stretches for Upper Back Pain)

The biggest back pain culprit: laptops

While desktop computers encourage us to position ourselves for good ergonomics, a laptop pretty much always leads to strain.

“If the monitor is high enough, your shoulders and upper back are strained,” says Koivuranta. And if your shoulders are comfortable, he says, you’re likely looking down more, which is going to be a problem for your neck and can trigger headaches. The easiest fix is to turn your laptop into a desktop: Invest in a separate mouse and keyboard and raise your laptop to eye level.

(Related: 6 Helpful Products for Lower Back Pain)

Make your work set up work for you

Get your ergonomics right by making sure your furniture is proportional to you.

Koivuranta says it’s crucial to be able to have your elbows rest at the sides of your body, at the same height or slightly higher than the keyboard, when sitting at a computer. Your chair’s back should be locked vertically and extend to provide neck support, helping to guide your body into an upright position where your head is above your shoulders and your shoulders are straight above your hips. And, if you’re on the shorter side (or have a super tall desk), Koivuranta suggests getting a footrest, so your feet rest on the ground and your legs are relaxed.

(Related: 4 Chest Stretches to Help Improve Posture and Reverse Slouching)

The healing power of micro-breaks

During the pandemic, we’ve lost normal bits of daily movement—the commute, walking to your co-worker’s desk for a chat—making us more sedentary and leading to an increase in back pain.

To counteract this, take frequent micro-breaks, which negate the effects of sedentary work, says Koivuranta. He suggests doing “yoga for cheaters”: Work through your favourite poses quickly, in 60 to 90 seconds. Koivuranta adds that frequent small breaks are more effective for reversing the physical impact of a sedentary lifestyle than cramming in a major workout twice a week.

Whether these changes will fix your back pain in the long run depends on individual factors, including underlying medical problems, how healthy and active you are and how long you’ve been slouching over your desk. But if you’re generally healthy and this is a temporary work set-up, Koivuranta says these small changes can help prevent future pain, improve your posture and lead to recovery.

Next, here are 10 home remedies for a stiff and painful neck

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Best Health Canada
Originally Published in Best Health Canada