How to reduce back & neck pain when working from home, according to a physiotherapist.
1. Assess your posture
The average WFH employee is seated at their desk for 9 hours every day, and many confess to even longer hours now that working days are not book-ended by commuting. Inevitably, these long stretches of time spent in one position mean that the ill effects of even the smallest postural issues are likely to be exacerbated.
Knowledge is power when it comes to solving postural problems and neck and back pain. New online tools like VIDA use your computer’s webcam to intelligently assess your desk posture (including your head angle, shoulder alignment and distance from the screen) in under ten minutes, and will automatically produce a personalised report including recommendations for exercises to counteract any issues detected. This means you don’t have to second-guess your desk setup, and can instead tap in to the remote expertise of a physiotherapist without the associated time and financial costs.
2. Ensure your lower back is supported Lower back pain - that’s any kind of persistent discomfort in the area between your coccyx and mid-spine - was reported as the number one complaint by newbie WFH-ers in the early days of the first lockdown. The usual cause of lower back pain is sitting in a chair that does not provide adequate support (hint: your kitchen chairs probably don’t cut it). Investing in an ergonomic, height-adjustable desk chair with lumbar support is highly advisable for anyone who is spending long periods of time sitting down. You should be looking for a chair that curves slightly forwards at belly-button level, as this mirrors the natural curve of your spine. If you’re still waiting for your chair to be delivered, improvise by placing a small pillow at the small of your back to support the curvature. Also check that both your feet are resting flat on the floor, with equal weight distribution. If this is not the case, use a small stool or large book as a prop under your soles.
3. Relax your shoulders Turn your attention to your shoulders right now. Are you tensing them? Chances are they are not fully relaxed, and one may even be higher than the other. As any physiotherapist (or masseuse!) will tell you, holding stress or tension in your shoulders has many knock-on physical effects and can cause pain and discomfort in your upper back, neck and shoulders. To alleviate a cause of the tension, seek out a chair with wide, 90-degree arm rests, and use a hands-free headset for phone calls and virtual meetings.
You can also try raising your laptop screen to ensure your shoulders are fully relaxed and your neck is straight while you’re working. Hunching over a laptop will eventually cause neck and/or back pain.
Finally, if you perform this quick sequence of shoulder exercises every two hours you should quickly notice an improvement in any shoulder-related pain:
Gently lift both your shoulders about 2 inches
Slowly relax them down as far as possible
Hold one arm across your body and use the other arm to push your elbow into your chest
Swap arms and repeat the stretch
Release, let your arms hang down as far as possible
Gently rotate your shoulders forwards and backwards five times
Notice the tension melting away
4. Check the height of your keyboard and screen
As above, if you are having to hold your neck at an unnatural angle, this means that a) your screen or keyboard is at the wrong angle, and b) you are at a higher risk of developing neck pain! You should not have to look down at your screen - it should be directly in front of your eyes when you hold your neck straight and lift your head high. When it comes to your keyboard, it should be positioned at an angle that allows you to type with flat wrists and your shoulders relaxed.
A laptop stand (or even some stacked books) could help you to adjust the height of your screen. If you’re really suffering, you can even try a standing desk - which is a great way to move and reduce tension in your lower back and neck whilst you’re working.
If you don’t want to invest in a standing desk, try putting your laptop on a shelf or chest of drawers that has a flat surface at around midriff or chest height. Work there for at least 45 minutes to an hour every day to ease pressure and tension in your lower back, neck and shoulders.
5. Get ready to move
Experts agree that getting up from your desk once every hour is the most important thing you can do to pre-emptively tackle your WFH aches and pains. Set a timer on your phone or computer so that you don’t get distracted by your overflowing inbox, and ensure that you regularly take a couple of minutes to get up and stretch. If you are at home, combine your movement break with a household chore like hanging up laundry or taking out the bins - that’s killing two birds with one stone! Exercise doesn’t necessarily require a lot of effort to have a big positive impact. Try taking your next phone call whilst walking around the room, or use your lunch break to take a short jog or an online yoga class. If you’re looking for a fun way to motivate yourself to exercise, challenge your work colleagues to an active online game.
Simple neck stretches (like the ones outlined above) and back stretches like a ‘cat cow’ or ‘forward fold’ pose can help alleviate tension and pain in the back and neck after a long day.