Joyce Brodsky was always more of a sunbather than a swimmer.
But after COVID-19 began spreading, sitting in chairs by her condominium pool was no longer allowed, and the only place to catch the sun was in the deep end.
So Brodsky, 76, of Lincolnwood, Ill., began doing the backstroke. Eventually, she worked her way up to 60 laps at a time.
After a couple of months, she felt throbbing pain in her upper arms. She learned she had torn rotator cuffs and arthritis in her shoulders, which may have been aggravated by her new exercise routine. She started physical therapy in September.
“I wanted to get exercise, and I wanted to take advantage of the sun in the pool,” Brodsky said. “I kind of thought being in the water would help me because water is supposed to be therapeutic.”
Across the country, aching backs, necks and shoulders brought on by COVID-19-related lifestyle changes have sent many people to physical therapists — a trend that’s likely to continue in 2021.
In many cases, working from couches, dining tables and kitchen counters is taking a toll on people’s bodies. People are also getting injured when they start new exercise routines because their regular gyms closed, or they no longer want to go to them. And that’s to say nothing of the physical therapy some COVID-19 patients require after they recover.
Like many medical providers, physical therapists saw patient visits drop dramatically in early 2020, when the pandemic started. During those early months, 54% of physical therapists said they were working fewer hours, according to an American Physical Therapy Association survey.
In recent months, however, some local physical therapists say they’re seeing nearly as many patients as they did before COVID-19, with many of those people visiting for pandemic-related problems.
“We’ve been seeing a lot more people getting aches and pains because of a significant shift in their activity level,” said Matt Gauthier, a physical therapist at Athletico Physical Therapy’s Niles-Northwest Chicago clinic.
For example, he’s been seeing people with knee and hip issues after they took up running or biking — activities they could easily do alone, from home.
Before the pandemic, 47-year-old Randy Liss of Chicago liked to do bench presses and other exercises at a gym once or twice a week. Once COVID-19 hit, he tried to stay strong by lifting smaller weights and doing pushups in his garage. He ended up with a torn shoulder labrum.
He started physical therapy in November at Illinois Bone & Joint Institute in Chicago.
“People are doing things in places they wouldn’t normally be doing them,” Liss said. “If things are out of whack at all, it puts a stress on your body and your body just can’t handle it.
“If it wasn’t for COVID, this wouldn’t have happened because my life would be the same as it was in February,” he said.
Physical therapists say complaints of neck, shoulder, and upper back pain are more common as patients slump over their computers for hours at a time.
Borislav Strahilov, 26, of Rosemont, Ill., started working from home in March, spending hours a day sitting in a chair he described as “a piece of crap.” He also decided in the spring to use the time he was saving by not commuting downtown to start working out. He went from doing very little exercise to lifting weights six days a week.
After a few months, his upper back began to hurt. At one point, it got so bad that he had to sleep in one position all night, without moving, to get any rest.
He started physical therapy in November.
“I never thought I’d be going to physical therapy at 26,” Strahilov said.
Physical therapists say they’re seeing many people like Strahilov who never needed physical therapy before now.
They’re also seeing many people with previous problems that have flared up — aggravated not just by lifestyle changes, but also the stress of coping with the pandemic.
Many workdays now include monitoring remote learning and making sure children are cared for. And that’s on top of the fear many people have of getting sick, said Sam Wilson, lead physical therapist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Ill.
“It really ramps people’s pain up,” Wilson said of stress. “We started to see these people who previously had pain be a little harder to treat because people were a little more anxious, nervous, stressed out, because of how life has changed over the last few months.”
Previous injuries are also reemerging as people have less time and opportunity to take care of themselves, Gauthier said.
“People aren’t necessarily able to take care of themselves like they used to, whether it’s (because of) the kids being home or the work and home lines being blurred,” Gauthier said. “A lot of self-help has fallen off the table, so a lot of older injuries are coming back for people.”
The good news, however, is that many of these lifestyle-related injuries are highly treatable, therapists say.
Physical therapists often teach patients exercises to help them strengthen certain muscles, and many have started offering virtual sessions for people who aren’t comfortable visiting their offices.
In some cases, patients might start to feel better after just a couple of sessions, while for others, it may take weeks or more.
One of the biggest lessons for people, physical therapists say, is to keep moving.
Part of the problem is that people aren’t moving around as much as they normally would in an office. Gauthier, with Athletico, suggests people get up and walk around at least every couple of hours.
“In an office setting there’s always a reason to get up and move, whether it’s to go get something or talk with someone,” Gauthier said. At home, “people just hole up on a couch or in a favorite chair and don’t get up as much as they would otherwise.”
That’s partly what happened to Phoebe Skowronski, 28, of Chicago.
Before the pandemic, she had minor back pain from an injury years ago, but it was manageable. Her commute included about two miles a day of walking, and she went to the gym most days.
Even in the office, the software engineer was on the move.
“The office I was working in was very large,” Skowronski said. “If I was walking even to the lunchroom or kitchenette, I was walking four or five times farther than I’m walking now to get to my kitchen.”
After she started working from home — from her dining table — the pain intensified to the point where she couldn’t sit without leaning on something.
In August she started going to physical therapy twice a week at Athletico to strengthen her muscles.
Within a couple sessions, Skowronski started feeling better. She enjoyed physical therapy, saying it was refreshing to get out and do something good for herself during the pandemic.
“I could see the improvements,” she said. One day, she said, “I was sitting at home and I couldn’t figure out why my back felt so weird, and then it dawned on me: It was because I wasn’t in pain anymore.”