‘Lockdown Back’: What to Do About It

Working from home back doesn’t have to be a pain in the neck…

By Karen Dearden, Clinical Specialist and Clinic Director

“This weekend I moved around some furniture and swapped the chair that I am using for my home office; my ‘home office’ is a desk with a dining chair. As I am now lucky enough to spend most of my working week in the clinic, I’m no longer at my home office desk for huge periods of time, but after 30 minutes of typing this morning, I noticed that my forearms and my shoulders were aching. The new chair I’d swapped was too low. Luckily, I realised; I know I should know better! Big fat cushion later and all is ok for the short length of time I’m working from home today.”

Speaking to patients in clinic, a lot of us have experienced the same; with the swift response to the first coronavirus lockdown, we scrambled to set up makeshift home offices that could be used immediately, with little thought of the consequences of poor ergonomics and all that leaning forward staring into our laptops and tablets as we tried to navigate Zoom. The achy neck and shoulders and/or back pain that it caused was pushed to the back of our minds while we tried to rapidly adapt to this new work situation, focussing on the emotional and psychological stresses and new level of complexity added to daily life, while hoping that things would be back to normal soon.

Things didn’t go back to normal, and the new level of complexity if anything just became more complex, while other things may have become easier with practice. However, unless the new aches and pains were bad enough for you to look for some help (although we’ve seen plenty of you in clinic), you may still be struggling on with less than perfect home office arrangements. As it has now become clear that the home working situation is to continue for at the very least a few months more, if not indefinitely for some people, while the adverse effects of altered exercise regimes become more prevalent, now is the time to consider your situation.

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

The elephant in the room is that while working from home is that we move less during the day; although the morning commute may have felt tiresome, at least it involved some physical activity! Getting up to chat to colleagues, or nip out to pick up a sandwich at lunch also afforded a simple opportunity to stretch your legs and get your heart rate up. This is before we mention all those pre-COVID exercise routines which went to pot with the closure of gyms, social distancing and the like.

The human body is made to move; it functions best when it moves regularly. If it doesn’t move, then muscles quickly weaken, others will shorten to accommodate the postures the body is most commonly held in. In short, if you snooze, you lose. Sitting hunched over a Zoom call on a laptop, or sending emails from a tablet often causes craning of the neck and rounding of the shoulders. The muscles which draw your shoulders back don’t get used, so get weaker, and your pectoral muscles which draw your shoulders forwards will get shorter, maintaining this poor posture. You may start to get neck and shoulder pain as the muscles overwork to support the weight of your head and shoulders while the joints between your neck vertebrae are held in a flexed (bent forward) position, which puts further strain on the neck.

This is just one example of a common consequence of poor sitting posture while working, to check if your posture has changed with lockdown, see our previous blog post.
And the longer you sit in this posture, the more ingrained it becomes. So what can you do about it?

Simple Stretches and Exercises for Home Workers

Think about consciously increasing your daily step count. Try and plan for/incorporate a walk into your day, maybe at lunchtime. If this isn’t possible, you could walk around the house when on a call, or stand for a video meeting.

When you get up for your next cup of tea or coffee, move purposefully, try getting out of the chair without using your hands, stand up tall, draw your shoulders back and down, swing your arms.

Whilst you wait for the kettle to boil, do these simple exercises:

  1. Pull your shoulder blades back and down and hold for 5 seconds
  2. Contract your buttocks and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 5 times
  3. Sit on a stool or chair, bring your knees together, arms folded and rotate your chest to twist your spine to the right, then to the left, repeat five times on each side

These three simple exercises can make a positive difference and can easily be repeated throughout the day, but are clearly not exhaustive. Our team are on hand to provide plenty more stretching and exercise advice, should you need it, or if you need treatment with a more complicated issue.

What about My Desk Setup?   

We have discussed why movement is so important, but if you can position yourself as well as you can while you’re at your desk then you can mitigate the effects of being held in a poor posture to begin with. There are lots of things to consider when thinking about DSE (display screen equipment) and ergonomic desk setup, but here are some of the important things to consider:

          Your Chair:

  • The height of your chair should be high enough in relation to your desk that you can sit with your shoulders relaxed and forearms resting on the desk, with no less than a 90 degree angle at your knees, hips and elbows. If you can’t get your feet on the ground in this position, you need a foot rest.
  • You should be able to get your chair close enough under the desk so that you can sit upright with your back supported without having to lean forward on the desk.
  • If you can’t adjust your chair to get yourself into a suitable position, or are feeling like your back is unsupported and you’re struggling to get comfortable, it may be be worth investing in a suitable office chair that you can adjust to your size and shape. If you don’t know what you need, we can advise you, and we have an established relationship with a local office furniture supplier, offering fully customised chairs at competitive prices. Call or email us to find out more.

Desktop vs Laptop vs Tablet

  • Which one you use probably depends on what was available to you at the start of lockdown! The Important thing to consider is the height of the screen in relation to your eyeline; if you’re a touch typist you want the middle of the screen at your eyeline, if you’re a ‘hunt and peck’ typist (looking down at the keys), the top of the screen should be at your eye level; this is to avoid bending your neck to see the screen
  • Desktop computers are the gold standard, as the separate screen can easily be raised to an appropriate height to, the lower screens of laptops or tablets cause you to look down, which promotes the bent neck rounded shoulder posture that we are trying to avoid. If you’re using a laptop (or tablet) for hours at a time, then it is worth investing in an external (or Bluetooth) keyboard and mouse, which allows you to place the screen in a better position.

Keyboard and Mouse

  • Place your keyboard and mouse close enough to you so that you don’t have to reach for them to make it as easy as possible to maintain a good upright posture.

This is by no means an exhaustive checklist of desk setup, and obviously doesn’t consider scenarios when there is no desk or table available and a sofa or bed is the next best thing. The bottom line is that your employer has a legal obligation to provide you with appropriate equipment to allow you to work in an environment that is safe for you, whether this is at home, or in the office.

If you are unsure of whether you are set up adequately, you should ask your employer if they can provide a DSE (display screen equipment) or workplace assessment. If they can’t, we can. Our highly trained team at Newcastle Sports Injury Clinic have been carrying out workplace assessments for local businesses for many years now. With our expert knowledge in injury prevention and treatment, we are able to provide immediate tangible solutions and plans to help you address the cause of your problem and hence resolve your symptoms and allow you to live a healthier life.

Call us on 0191-233 0500 or email us to be put in touch with a member of our team who can help you now.