The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed millions of U.S. employees out of their offices and into their homes. Without ergonomic chairs and desks, do-it-yourself workspaces can spell trouble for back and neck pain and spine health. Carolyn Keeler, DO, a Duke spine specialist who uses physical therapy and medicine to treat pain and improve function, says there are steps you can take to prevent back problems or keep them from worsening while working from home.
Remote Work Benefits for Your Back
In some ways, working from home can be an advantage because you have flexibility in terms of where you work -- the dining room table, a home office, or the couch -- and you can change it up.
“There is really no ideal workstation for pain related to the spine,” Dr. Keeler said, so it’s important to be aware of your body and what it’s trying to tell you. For example, people with spinal stenosis may feel most comfortable sitting, whereas people with disc problems may feel best standing.
Ways to Prevent Back Pain at Home
When it comes to back pain and spine health, take stock of your at-home workspace and try to follow these best practices:
- Use the best chair in the house. When it comes to back health, always choose function over form. Your office chair might be stylish, but it’s not doing you any favors if it’s not supporting your spine. Also, when seated, you should create 90-degree angles at your hips and knees.
- Get creative. You can make your workstation more comfortable by using towels or pillows to support your lower back, repurposing a box or storage container as a footrest, or propping up your laptop on books to keep your head up and your eyes looking straight ahead.
- Get moving. Set a reminder to stand up and move at least once an hour, recommended Dr. Keeler. Walk a few laps around your kitchen island or up and down the stairs. Practice a few light exercises or stretches to get your blood flowing. Then reset your work posture and refocus.
- Work smarter, not harder. Whenever possible, take a break from repetitive touchpad or keyboard work by using transcription services or dictation options. Use a headset or earbuds for phone calls, instead of holding a phone to your ear for long periods.
- Practice self-care. As much as possible, take care of your overall health by exercising regularly, staying hydrated, eating well, and reducing stress. Core exercises strengthen your back muscles to support your spine more efficiently, and cardiovascular exercise improves blood flow. Stress is a major contributor to back, neck, and shoulder pain. Simple mindfulness techniques and deep breathing can help you relax your muscles and release tension.
When to See a Back Doctor
Even if you are following these recommendations, you may experience back pain that requires a doctor visit. Make an appointment if chronic back pain does not improve or gets worse over several weeks -- especially if you’ve had an accident or trauma. You should also see a doctor if you have associated weakness, tingling, or numbness in your limbs; if the pain stops you from participating in normal activities; or if it causes you to lose sleep at night.
A back and spine expert can evaluate your concerns and give you personalized recommendations based on your spine’s “directional preference,” which is how your spine moves and feels best. You may also benefit from chiropractic care, physical therapy, or integrative medicine techniques like massage or acupuncture.
“You really want to understand the underlying condition,” Dr. Keeler said. “There’s no universal approach to treating back pain because it really depends on each person’s individual anatomy and their unique issue.”