By Joyce Reingold
When the pandemic sent office workers home in March 2020, beds, couches and kitchen tables became makeshift workstations. Coronavirus safety supplanted ergonomic concerns. And as temporary turned to “we’re still at it,” necks, backs and shoulders started to feel the strain.
Many months on, doctors, physical therapists, fitness experts and others are helping the work-from-home crowd address the accumulated aches and pains from what’s being called pandemic posture.
“Stiffness in the back, neck and shoulders,” says Dr. Joanna Drowos, an osteopathic physician at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at FAU Medicine in Boca Raton, ticking off some of her patients’ most common issues.
“I have seen some carpal tunnel, from not having your keyboard in the appropriate position and spending more time typing. I’ve seen more headaches. And even some low back soreness. I had a patient the other day tell me that when she’s working at home, she doesn’t have a chair where her feet touch the floor.” Drowos, who is also associate dean for faculty affairs at FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine and an associate professor of family medicine, offers patients osteopathic manipulative therapy, “which is designed to treat somatic dysfunction in the body, where people will have a little bit of pain usually related to just sort of being out of alignment,” she says.
“People can have a lot of different reasons for having discomfort, but when you’re in a situation where your work habits have changed so much … it’s become very difficult for people to take care of themselves just because of the work environment.”
A study published in the March 2021 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine identified some of those changes. Researchers found respondents worked longer days — an average of more than 48 minutes — while based at home. They also participated in more meetings — an almost 13% increase per person since work from home began.
“These intense and extended hours at the workstation without proper breaks might be directly linked to increased musculoskeletal discomfort and other negative physical health effects,” the study’s authors wrote.
That’s why ergonomics tops the list when Drowos talks to patients about preventing body stress and strain, whether working from home, in the office, or a mix of the two.
“The biggest thing to be mindful of is your workstation,” she says. “Make sure that when you’re seated and working, that you have an appropriate chair, your desk is at the appropriate height, you’re not hunched over, you have support for your back, and your wrists are in a comfortable position.”
Look around your workstation. Does it meet these Occupational Health and Safety Administration guidelines?
• Top of monitor at or just below eye level
• Head and neck balanced and in line with torso
• Shoulders relaxed
• Elbows close to body and supported
• Lower back supported
• Wrists and arms in line with forearms
• Adequate room for keyboard and mouse
• Feet flat on the floor
Once you’re well-situated, remember that stopping for activity is also important.
“Remember that our bodies are meant to move,” says Austin Brock, a certified fitness trainer and co-owner of Slash Fitness in Delray Beach. “I recommend that my clients never sit at their desks or in front of a screen for more than 30 minutes at a time. Get up, walk around and stretch.”
Brock regularly addresses technology-induced body issues in his line of work.
“Activities that consume most of our time these days are anteriorly focused, meaning that they cause us to roll our shoulders forward and extend our neck out away from our body,” he says.
“This is generally seen when we use our computer, tablet or phone, but it is also replicated when we drive and even when we eat. Mimic any of those movements right now, even without the equipment, and you’ll see what I mean.”
To avoid succumbing to pandemic posture, Brock recommends a combination of strengthening exercises and stretching movements.
“By doing so, the muscles in our core, our backs/shoulders and our glutes, our bodies are able to hold themselves in a more upright position. Corrective bodyweight exercises can be done almost anywhere and require little to no equipment.”
Brock recommends consulting a certified fitness trainer to get the right exercise plan and minimize the risk of injury.
And even when you’re stuck in front of a screen, there are simple ways to stay limber.
“You can do some gentle neck rolling and neck stretches, assuming you don’t have any underlying injury. Our clinic offers chair yoga and meditation that’s all virtual,” Drowos says.
“Even though it’s virtual and you have to do it on the screen, you can at least have some relaxation and move your body in a way that’s healing.”
The classes are free to the public, but registration is required. You can learn more here: www.faumedicine.org/integrative-health/programs/index.php.
“I think the pandemic has gone on longer than any of us imagined,” she says. “When we first went home, it was sort of like, prepare for two weeks or three weeks and we’ll be back. So, I think just the recognition that the world is different, and work looks different. … Give yourself a great workstation and then make sure that you get up.”
Joyce Reingold writes about health and healthy living. Send column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.