A few months into the pandemic, Allen Conrad’s patients began complaining about increased pain in their neck and shoulders. Some struggled to turn their heads and experienced increased tension in their wrists. Conrad, owner of Montgomery County Chiropractor Center, in North Wales, Pennsylvania, immediately knew the cause.
“My patients are sitting at home, working at their kitchen table for hours on end,” he said. “One patient I have is doing his work on an ironing board because there’s just not enough room in his apartment for a desk, and that can definitely have a negative effect on the body.”
When offices closed last spring, creating an ergonomic workstation was often not a priority, as many expected to be back in their cubes within a few weeks. But after more than a year, with many still at home, chiropractors and orthopedic surgeons say they’re seeing more patients in pain.
“Almost from the jump with COVID, I’ve seen a big uptick in patients with neck, back, wrist, hand and shoulder problems,” said Jeremy Simon, chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Rothman Orthopaedic Institute in Philadelphia. “It’s because they don’t have a normal workspace. People are often slouched in a chair during Zoom calls, especially when they’re using a tablet device, which means their head is bent. And they can end up stuck on the couch in that position for over an hour.”
Hunching over adds pressure to the spine, he said, especially the intervertebral discs, which act as shock absorbers for the vertebrae. This increase in pressure can cause the discs to deteriorate faster. Looking at a device with your head in a flexed position can put up to 60 pounds of force on the discs in your neck, he said. And many people may be holding that position for hours on end.
“That’s why we suggest mimicking your work station at home if you can,” Simon said. “Things like sitting on a supportive chair can help maintain an inward curve in your back. Elevating your laptop can help keep your head in a more neutral position. And using a standing desk can put less pressure on your discs than sitting.”
Hunching over a laptop screen can also put tension on your hips, said Rhonda Hazell, an assistant professor for anatomy and physiology in La Salle University’s biology department. Over time, the hips will lock up, which causes prolonged compression that affects the internal organs in the abdominal cavity, she said. When the intestines fold up, digestion slows down.
“Ideally we should be getting up every hour just to stand and stretch to allow for that circulation to move through our system,” Hazell said. “That’s when it’s a good time to get a drink of water or have lunch. If you can’t leave the room, you can always do a spinal twist in your armchair or a downward dog to release tension from the shoulders.”
She stressed the importance of getting a chair that encourages proper posture, with a back that supports the natural curvature of the spine, pointing out that sitting in an awkward position places abnormal tension on the hip flexor muscles.
“Ergonomic chairs make a huge difference,” Hazell said. “Chairs with bad backs and high hips can cause all kinds of musculoskeletal issues.”
Standing desks can also help relieve the burden on the body. If you don’t have enough space for one at home, Conrad recommends getting a laptop stand that elevates the screen so you aren’t hunching over. Looking downward constantly can cause non-traumatic whiplash, he said, which can lead to muscle tightening, headaches and back soreness. In the long run, poor posture can lead to degenerative spine and shoulder conditions, Conrad said.
“People need to find ways to observe what they’re doing wrong,” he said. “One way to do that is to have your significant other take a picture of you from the side, and then fix what’s wrong. Your back and your knees should be close to a 90-degree angle from the ground, and your shoulders and hips should be straight.”
During breaks, doing something as simple as a “rag doll fold,” which is when the upper body drops toward the feet, can be helpful, Hazell said. Regularly decompressing the spine and releasing the “stagnation from sitting” can make a difference in how people feel after sitting at a keyboard all day long, she said.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much your posture and your body mechanics can be affected by your desk and workspace,” Simon said. “We take that for granted. But it’s important from a preventative standpoint to keep those things in mind and do stretches, because otherwise it could become a chronic issue.”