All across America, former cubicle dwellers are slouched over dining room tables or sprawled on sofas, pecking away at laptops. As this new reality of homebound life drags on for nonessential employees, makeshift workspaces that were meant to be temporary have become the places where we spend the bulk of our days. Now our bodies are paying the price — in aches and pains.
“Typically people find the easiest place to sit, such as a couch, and they end up holding awkward postures for long periods of time,” says James Koshy, director of ergonomics for Duke University’s Occupational and Environmental Safety Office. “The pain is just the body’s way of telling you to stop and pay attention.”
The first step is to try a more ergonomic setup. “You’ll want to adjust your chair so that elbows sit at a 90-degree angle; where your hands end up is where your keyboard should be,” says Jon Cinkay, body mechanics coordinator at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Thighs should be parallel to the floor and feet should sit flat. If they dangle even a little, put a box or some books on the floor to support them.
Read on about some common work-from-home maladies and the ergonomic adjustments and physical exercises that can prevent and treat them.
Lower back discomfort
When you’re sitting too long and perhaps not exercising regularly, “your hamstrings get tight and pull, putting abnormal strain on your lumbar spine,” says Jonas Rudzki, a Washington, D.C.-based orthopedic surgeon. Combined with weakened core muscles, that can cause low back discomfort and pain around the hips, exacerbating conditions such as sciatica. He recommends stretching the hamstrings: While seated, rest your heel on the floor with your knee straight and gently lean forward until you feel a stretch behind your knee and thigh.
To make sure your lower back is supported while you work, sit back in the chair so it’s cradling your spine all the way up to your shoulder blades. If your chair lacks lumbar support, roll up a towel and nestle it between the small of your back and the chair. For remote workers who suffer from sciatica, Cinkay recommends sitting a bit lower so the knees are slightly higher than the hip. “It puts the hamstring muscles in a more slackened position, and that’s what the sciatic nerve runs through,” he says.
Upper back and shoulder tightness
Even if you begin the day sitting up and straight, it only takes 10 to 15 minutes before your body settles into poor posture that can lead to injury. “When we’re working long hours in a suboptimal space, muscle tension and fatigue builds up in the trapezius back muscles, the muscles around the neck and in the shoulder area,” Rudzki says. To relieve tension, he suggests using an elastic fitness band to do a simple exercise that mimics rowing: “Sit upright with your head centered over your spine and pull the elastic band back toward you as if you’re trying to tuck your shoulder blades down into your back pockets,” he says.
Head and neck aches
Remote working also accounts for a recent surge in head and neck pain. “Looking down at a screen puts a lot of stress on your spine, leading to cervicogenic headaches,” Koshy says. The human head typically weighs about 10 pounds, but when tilted downward, say 45 degrees, the weight on the cervical spine increases exponentially, putting excess strain on the neck.
And it’s not just adults who are feeling the pain. “I’m seeing 8-year-olds who are reporting headaches, which is unusual but not surprising given that kids are on screens all the time now,” says Karen Erickson, a New York-based chiropractor and the spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association.
To promote good posture and prevent neck and upper back injuries, she suggests positioning screens at eye level. Placing a stack of books under a monitor is an easy fix. Ideally, the center of the screen should be 15 degrees below your line of sight. If you’re using a laptop, consider purchasing a separate keyboard, which makes it easier to elevate the screen. Periodically stretching your neck muscles helps, too. Take turns trying to touch your ear to your shoulder on each side and extend your neck upward by looking at the ceiling.
Avoiding wrist pain is another reason laptop users might find a separate keyboard worth the investment. “When people work on laptops, it creates a sort of ulnar deviation of the wrist. People twist their palms to the outside and it puts a stress on the median nerve,” Koshy says. When the median nerve is squeezed or compressed, it can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.
To keep wrists limber, he recommends a few simple hand stretches, such as fist-to-fan: Make a fist and extend your fingers out wide like a fan and repeat. Or you can squeeze a rolled-up sock, hold for five seconds, then release. Repeat 10 times, a few times a day.
If you think your posture is the only casualty of staring down at a screen, think again. “We don’t realize how much our eyes suffer based on where we put our computer,” says Koshy. “Say you have a window behind your monitor and the view outside is brighter or has a different illumination level. Your eye is constantly adjusting like a camera to accommodate the two different intensities of light.” Similarly, if the light from a window is behind you, it might be reflected in your screen, which can also cause eyestrain. He suggests setting up your desk so the window is perpendicular to it. And no matter where your computer is situated, it’s important to take frequent visual breaks. Set a timer to employ the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at an object 20 feet in the distance for 20 seconds.
Internal organ compression
Slouching over a computer for hours at a time, which puts pressure on your internal organs, can compromise both your lung function and digestion. “When you slump forward, you compress the contents of your stomach and push it back up into your esophagus. For someone who already has reflux, sitting in that posture can make it much worse,” Erickson says. To stretch the diaphragm and the muscles of the digestive cavity, she recommends simple side bends and reaching your arms to the sky, one at a time, then both together, from a sitting or standing position.
Since the shelter-in-place order began, Koshy has also noticed an uptick in acute computer-related injuries that have nothing to do with working. “Lately, we’re seeing more mishaps where kids or older adults trip over computer cords or equipment that’s not normally there, like at the kitchen table,” he says. In 2009, a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported a sevenfold increase in injuries such as tripping and falling over cords, especially among children under 5 due to an increase in home computer equipment from 1994 through 2006. Consider buying a floor cord cover, or taping down cords (if you have hardwood floors, make sure you use a tape that won’t harm the finish).
Another potential danger of our new home-based existence: “Sometimes you are so focused on what’s in front of you, you forget that you just went three hours without moving,” Koshy says. That kind of sedentary behavior could lead to a deep vein thrombosis, a clot that originates in the leg vein and can travel to the lungs with fatal consequences for those at risk, such as women who are pregnant or taking birth control, the elderly and smokers. “Blood tends to pool at your feet when you sit a lot, and for those prone to clots it’s a real concern,” he says. Whether you’re engrossed in work or bingeing on the latest must-watch show, set a timer to go off every hour as a reminder to get up and move.
To decrease time spent sitting while working, Cinkay likes a sit-to-stand desk model, but if a standing desk is not an option, you can move your laptop or desktop to a counter. In fact, it’s ideal to alternate your work area throughout the day if you can. For instance, start the day at the dining room table, move to a standing position with a laptop at the kitchen counter, and so on.
And while it may be tempting to pad around the house barefoot to rebel against years of wearing wingtips or pumps, you might want to reconsider — especially if you have hardwood floors. “It’s great to get out of high heels because it takes a lot of negative stress off your feet, but if you have any discomfort in your feet or if you are still transitioning to working from home, wear a comfortable running shoe that has more support and a bit of a heel lift,” Rudzki says. To minimize the chance of developing heel pain and plantar fasciitis, he suggests doing a basic runner’s stretch in which you lunge toward a wall with one foot forward while stretching the ankle of your back leg.
The sooner you incorporate some of these changes and exercises, the better off you’ll be in the long run — and it may be a long run. Erickson says: “I have a feeling this way of living isn’t going to go away so fast, even when society gets back to normal.”
Brunner is a Washington, D.C.-based lifestyle and design writer.