A woman on the couch with a book, notebook and laptop computer.

August 19, 2020

The pains of working from home extend beyond having kids and animals interrupt your focus and phone calls by entering your “work” space.

Most likely, your home office is breaking some ergonomic laws—and you’re paying the price physically.

“It’s easier to prevent an injury than fix one that’s already there,” says Sean Harris, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS, FAAOMPT, Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation at Shepherd Square.

Where Did You Go Wrong?

Crime: The Couch Desk

Signs of Guilt: That sinking feeling comes from too-soft, sagging sofas. “Rarely are sofas firm enough,” Harris says. Most likely your knees are higher than your hips, creating more than the desired 90-degree angle where thighs are parallel to the floor and knees and hips are at the same height. “What typically causes pain for people working at home is sitting on their couch or at their kitchen table, which often is not at the right level,” says Harris.

Rehab: Find a firm chair and, if possible, adjust the height so your arms are parallel to your thighs and your wrists are not bent. “If you slouch, adjust your work set-up until you have good posture,” he says.

Crime: Faulty Laptop Position

Signs of Guilt: Balancing your computer on your knees does your back and neck no favors. Most likely, you’re tensing up your calves while straining your neck and spine by stooping like a whooping crane.

Rehab: Stay in neutral: When seated, your eyes and chin should be level and your arms at a 90-degree angle with wrists extending straight from your arm. Chair armrests should support your arms without hiking your shoulders. Your hips and thighs should be close to a 90-degree angle. If not, put a box or book under your computer, so that your gaze hits the screen head-on. Also use a footrest for your feet.

Crime: Terrible Texting

Signs of Guilt: Whatever the device, you’ve still committed a crime when you hunch over your smart phone, forcing an unnatural bend in your neck.

Rehab: Rely on your eyes’ range of motion instead, by raising your phone and focusing on your eyes being downcast, without bending your neck.

Crime: Sitting Too Long

Signs of Guilt: Your back can start to cramp and your lower legs go numb.

Rehab: Get up and stretch, pace or exercise every 30 to 60 minutes. “If you sit in one position for hours on end, that puts undue stress on the joints and they ache and throb,” Harris says. “Do that too many days in a row, and you have a problem.”

Break Free From Pain

Don't wait till you're in pain to improve your posture. "See help from a physical therapist," Harris says. "Sometimes all you need is one visit of 30 minutes to learn preventive measures and how to set up your home office."

Seek medical help. If you experience sharp or severe pain, lose the ability to move normally or don’t feel better within a few weeks, seek care from a health care provider.

Keep moving. According to Harris, don’t stop exercising because your back hurts. “Inactivity is the biggest contributor to back pain,” he says. ”Movement is the answer.”

Be patient. This need not be a life sentence. “80% of back pain will resolve in 14 days—and it’ll resolve faster if you stay active,” he says.

Think of stretching like brushing your teeth: make it a daily or even twice daily routine, he says, and consider busting these moves:

  • Upright snow angels. Press your back against a wall and walk your feet forward several steps. Flatten your spine against the wall and spread your arms out, trying to reach all the way overhead, as you did as a child making angels in the snow. Repeat: three sets of 20 repetitions. For: sitting too long.
  • Toe touches. Reach forward to touch your toes. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat: three sets of 10 reps. For: standing too long.
  • Angry cat. Get on your hands and knees. Create a tabletop, with arms directly beneath shoulders and legs directly beneath hips. Round your back, as an angry cat would, then lower it so your belly hangs. Repeat: three sets of 20 reps. For: restoring full mobility of your back.
  • Side bends. Get up every 30 to 60 minutes and walk around for a minute. Then, with hips even and hands by your side, slide one had as far down the side of your leg as possible. Do the same on your other side. Repeat: two sets of 10 repetitions. For: a looser back.

The information in this article was accurate as of August 18, 2020.

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