Your COVID Aching Back

Working from home has become a pain for many people. An expert from Hospital for Special Surgery offers an explanation and some exercises

| 01 Apr 2021 | 06:33

How’s your back?

Thirteen months after COVID-19 crashed into our lives, if you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid contagion with all its unpleasant symptoms and get your vaccination, this a good week. Except for that twinge between your shoulders or the annoying ache further down that just doesn’t go away.

You’re not alone. According to the American Chiropractic Association, half of all American workers experience back pain symptoms every year. It’s the single leading cause of disability, costing us at least $50 billion in health care dollars every 12 months. Add in lost wages and productivity and that figure might easily approach $100 billion.

Working remotely has made it worse.

True, working from home has its benefits: Fresh coffee bubbling a few feet away, pleasant people in the next room, and no need to tie a tie or pull up pantyhose. But there’s a price to be paid because home isn’t just not an office, it’s not an office with office furniture.

Early on, various surveys showed whole bunches of people describing themselves as “completely prepared” to work from home. What they meant was they had the requisite electronics: computers, Internet access, and headphones an underrated by essential piece of equipment in a non-regulated environment. Things began to get murky when they were asked about printers and scanners, but they did have headphones.

So what’s missing? An office. Nulab, a Japan-based company which creates software designed to improve team work interviewed 856 home workers. Fewer than one-third actually has a dedicated office. Instead, they were working in the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom (sometimes the one belonging to an out-of-school child presumably exiled to another part of the house). More than half of Nulab’s subjects did have a desk, but about one in 25 were sitting on a couch with a laptop on their lap.

Is it any wonder their backs ache? Of course not. As Dr. Andrew Creighton, Assistant Attending Physiatrist at Hospital for Special Surgery and Assistant Professor of Clinical Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College explains, “Most people are sitting for longer periods now more than ever before. That increases the load on their spine and reduces overall balance throughout the body. Standing up and walking around about every 30 minutes can help to unload the spine and alleviate some of the aches and pains tied to working from home.”

Dead Bug and Chin Tucks

Creighton has some more suggestions: The dead bug, elbow to back pockets, and chin tucks.

The first attacks back pain by having you lie on your back and reach up to the ceiling while bringing your feet, knees and hips up towards your chest one leg at a time so you look like, yes, a big but not obviously not dead bug.

The second aims to alleviate shoulder and neck pain. You stand up, reach up and bring your elbows down towards the back pockets in the jeans you wear to work at home while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Repeat 5 times.

The third, for a stiffened neck, begins again with you standing, this time feet wide apart and your head straight so that your ears are right over your shoulders. Now stick one finger under your chin and push up and back, holding the position for 5 seconds until you feel the stretch.

Fair Warning: Given the length of the pandemic, the City’s physiatrists have plenty of aching back to soothe, so it goes without saying that you do these exercises carefully, and stop immediately if anything hurts. But you knew that.

Site Percent of people working there
Desk 58.5
Master bedroom 28.5
Living/family room 19.9
Dining table 13.2
Couch 11
Bed 6.9
Seated, laptop on lap 4.2
Kitchen countertop 3.0
Child’s bedroom 0.5*
*Read that as one person in every 200, not half a person in every 100.