You're not alone in back, neck, or wrist pains after working from home. We talked with an expert on ways to alleviate these discomforts.
Many people have spent the last year working from home. For some that means, working on a laptop, sitting at a dining room table, and less activity throughout the day. Our lives have gotten significantly less active, and the result for many is new body aches and pains. Wrist pain, neck pain, back pain, and restless legs are among the most common culprits. We spoke with Dr. Michael Mallow, associate professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine and director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, about why everyone is aching and how we can put an end to our cracking wrists.
This year had major lifestyle changes
While it is impossible to pinpoint one reason we feel these new pains, there is an overarching theme. It’s because everyone is less active than usual. Dr. Mallow has seen an increase in patients complaining of neck, shoulder, upper back pain with no specific injury and who did not deal with these issues prior to the pandemic. According to Dr. Mallow, two things are contributing to this: lack of movement and improper workspaces. “We’re not walking to the car, the train, or through the city. We are going 10 feet to the kitchen for lunch,” says Dr. Mallow, “We’re not as active as we normally would be.” He believes the lack of movement is just one piece of why we are aching, though.
Dr. Mallow says that in an ideal world, everyone would have an external monitor, an office chair that can raise and lower, and a standing desk. But, when working from home, you have to work with what you have. Is your laptop too low? Dr. Mallow recommends having the top of the screen be at eye level to avoid neck pain. An easy fix for those without a laptop stand is to stack some books under your laptop to raise it. You will need an external keyboard and mouse for this to work well for your wrists. Sitting on a hard kitchen chair? Roll up a towel and place it at your lower back. This provides you with some much-needed lumbar support. Your feet should rest flat on the floor in the chair you are seated in, so hunching over with your legs curled under you is an issue.
Putting an end to aches and pains
Besides adjusting your workspace, there are other things to reincorporate into your life. COVID has many skipping the gym, so we are not getting the exercise our bodies are used to (and need). Building an exercise routine is helpful for so many reasons, including bettering our moods, longevity, mortality, and of course, pain, says Dr. Mallow. If you lack space for a trendy exercise bike or other equipment you are used to from the gym, there are plenty of free videos online for stretching and bodyweight exercises.
Are your aches carpal tunnel? Arthritis?
With persistent pain, it is common to worry that it could be something worse. “Many x-rays or imaging studies of our spine show age-related changes that we then describe as arthritis and worry about a long-term problem,” Dr. Mallow explains. “It’s important to talk to your healthcare provider. In many cases, these findings have little impact on our symptoms.”
When it comes to carpal tunnel, it’s good to know what the signs are. “Carpal tunnel syndrome describes symptoms of pressure on the median nerve when it is squeezed within the carpal tunnel in your wrist,” says Dr. Mallow, “It’s a naturally somewhat narrow space that, in some folks, can lead to compression of the median nerve. It’s important to remember that carpal tunnel syndrome primarily causes numbness in the hand and fingers and, in more severe cases, hand weakness. The wrist pains associated with working at a keyboard could be from bending our wrists in ways that are not ergonomically correct. Contrary to popular belief, there is no support between keyboard use and carpal tunnel syndrome.”
Complications with work from home pains
Without changing your environment or stretching, these pains can get worse. Naturally, we can find ourselves stuck in a cycle where our backs hurt, so we aren’t exercising, and because we aren’t exercising and stretching, our backs hurt. Bed rest is no longer a recommended option for pains like these because it doesn’t help solve them and worsens issues.
If pain interrupts your life or work and isn’t getting better over time, you should consider contacting your healthcare provider for a telehealth visit or an in-person visit. “If you have weakness that’s getting worse, for example, if you have neck pain and it’s causing pain to shoot down your arm, and especially if your arm or arms feel weak, that would be something you’d want to act on early,” says Dr. Mallow.
A healthcare provider can help find out what the cause is. Many pains might have nothing to do with working from home, and they will help you identify other signs like weakness or loss of sensation that might point to a different cause. They can also help with strategies to relieve pain, like medications, modalities, treatments, and ways to prevent it from coming back. Dr. Mallow says that sometimes formal physical therapy can be needed, but we can often manage some modifications at home and a little more exercise. If we can work from home, why not exercise from home too?