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This is why working from home is ruining your body (and how to fix it)

Feb 2, 2021 | Exercise Mechanics

Another national lockdown has once again changed our daily routines. Most of us are juggling working from home with family commitments, and the weather makes that daily walk much less appealing.

A study commissioned by the brand Nurofen in July 2020, found that over a third of 2000 survey respondents reported increased pain since the March lockdown. Here’s the breakdown of where people were most affected:

  • 36% said they had increased back pain

  • 34% cited more headaches

  • 27% said they had joint pain

  • 26% reported neck pain

  • 24% said they had general muscle pain

A quarter of survey respondents said this increased pain stemmed from their work from home set-up, while 50% said the stress was a key factor.

We’ve seen it in the clinic, too. What’s struck me most when speaking to patients is how many have fallen significantly short of the recommended 10,000 daily steps. Some have dropped by 80% when working from home.

It’s understandable: gone are the days of walking to the bus stop or train station and quickly racking up the steps on your Fitbit by lunchtime.

 

What working from home is doing to your body

Working from home involves a significant reduction in movement. But in these blog posts, we continually stress the importance of movement. Why? Because when a muscle spends a prolonged period in a short position, the muscle fibres start to create further links to hold the muscle in this new shortened position. 

The specialist nerves in the muscles, known as spindles, also shorten. This makes it difficult to stretch the muscle fibres back to their original length, as the spindles can resist it. Furthermore, the tissue surrounding the muscle fibres will also shorten to offer more support to the muscle fibres. As this tissue becomes too short and tight, it becomes painful.

We promote activity and movement so much because we want to help you avoid this scenario. Walking to work, moving around the office for meetings and breaks, popping out for lunch and a gym class in the evening: it all help us move in and out of these undesirable positions. Sadly, this is much more difficult to achieve now (especially if we’re also homeschooling).

All this increases the chances of adaptive shortening of muscles and changes the way we move overall. For some people, this has resulted in significant pain. For others, it may just be a niggling pain or constant ache.

Either way, there are some steps you can take to help your body adjust and avoid serious injury. In this post, I’ll take you through some of the main areas of your body that may be affected by this drastic change in daily routine.

 

Why does this hurt?

 

Shoulder and neck pain

Shoulder and neck pain is common among people whose jobs are mostly computer-based. This is partly due to the posture we naturally assume when seated for long periods staring at a screen.

In an office, this time spent seated at the computer is usually broken up with general movement around the office. Not all of us were prepared to work from home in these current circumstances either. Plenty of people have put up with makeshift work stations at countertops, dining tables or, in the worst cases, on the couch.

You may be feeling shoulder or neck pain after so long working at home because our trapezius and erector spinal muscles will shorten as we work at a computer. Usually, our shoulders climb closer to our ears as our heads move closer and closer to the screen (sometimes without us even realising). 

When the trapezius and erector spinal muscles shorten, they pull the small joints in our spine closer together. This limits our movement and prevents the muscles from reaching their healthy lengths. Ultimately this leads to compression and inflammation of the spinal joints themselves.

We’ve also got some extra information about shoulder pain and neck pain.

 

Hip pain and tightness

When we sit, the muscles around our hips shorten. But these muscles play an essential role in stabilising the spine. They can adapt to a seated position, shortening too much. In this case, they can pull the spine into an increased inward curve of the spine (lordosis) upon standing.

This increased curvature will eventually cause lower back pain due to the shortening of muscles and similar compression and inflammation of the joins as explained above.

 

Lower back pain

Sometimes the lower back pain can be related to hip pain and that prolonged period of sitting. But sitting can also encourage the pelvis to tip into an excessive posterior tilt. Ultimately, this will put extra strain on the lower back muscles as they try to maintain spinal stability. It will also cause more compression in the lumbar spine.

We’ve got some more detailed information about lower back pain here.

 

How to prevent muscle pain while working from home

It doesn’t matter how good your posture is, sitting still for long periods damages your body.

My advice remains the same across the board for each area of your body: movement is the cure.

It is undoubtedly much harder to do this at the moment, especially when you’re juggling homeschooling and work. But if you can break up your day with regular movement breaks, your body will thank you for it.

Try splitting up your household chores, so you’re moving your body in different ways. Although gyms are closed, try to maintain your regular exercise routine at home. And, as much as we’re probably all sick of the same walk, make the most of time outside.

When it comes to your workspace, avoid the couch or bed. Our muscles will strain more, trying to keep us in a seated and stable position when we’re on a soft surface.

If you’re using a laptop, use a laptop stand or pop your computer up on some books to get it to eye level and reduce the strain on your neck. Position your keyboard so your shoulders are not too elevated or too low as this could cause spinal curvature.

If you can alternate between seated and standing positions for working, this will also be beneficial. Try taking phone calls while walking or moving around the house, or join your Zoom meeting while standing rather than sitting. Any regular movement you can incorporate into your routine, no matter how small, will help.

We’ve included some simple exercises below to help get you started. Use these to help add some movement to your day. They can all be done at home, some from your desk.

 

Seated rotation exercise for back pain

 

These seated thoracic rotations help mobilise your mid-back to ease muscle tension that builds in the back, neck and shoulders from sitting for too long.

 

HOW TO COMPLETE THIS EXERCISE

Sit with a straight spine and arms crossed as shown in the video. Keep the pelvis still as you twist the upper torso to the right, rotating at the waist. Breathe normally as you move. Return to the centre and repeat to the left-hand side. Perform this movement with some momentum.

 

Seated hip rotator stretch for healthy back posture (variation 1)

 

This simple seated hip external rotation stretch helps maintain a healthy lower back posture by allowing increased mobility through the hip and pelvis.

 

HOW TO COMPLETE THIS EXERCISE

Sit with a tall spine and place the ankle of one leg over the knee. With gentle pressure on the top side of the knee, lean forward from the hips. Keep a straight spine. You’ll feel a stretch through the hip, glute and/or lower back. Gently hold until you feel the stretch release. Breathe normally throughout the exercise and repeat 2-3 times. Rest and repeat on the opposite side.

 

Seated hip rotator stretch for healthy back posture (variation 2)

 

This more advanced seated hip external rotation stretch helps maintain a healthy lower back posture by allowing increased mobility through the hip and pelvis.

 

HOW TO COMPLETE THIS EXERCISE

Sit with a tall spine and place the ankle of one leg over the knee. Support it with the hands and draw the knee towards the chest. You should feel a stretch through the hip, glute and/or lower back and gently hold until you feel the stretch release. Breathe normally throughout the exercise and repeat 2-3 times. Rest and repeat on the opposite side.

 

Dead bug exercise for lower back pain

 

This simple exercise is a modification of the dead bug core exercise you might have done at the gym. This modified dead bug helps lower back pain, sacroiliac joint pain, hip pain, groin pain, and lower back mobility.

 

HOW TO COMPLETE THIS EXERCISE

Lay on your back with your knees bent. Place both hands in the small of the back to monitor for any movement in the lower back. Do not let your spine press into your hands. Maintaining the small curve in the lower back, rotate both hips out as far as comfortable. Reverse the motion to resume the start position. Repeat.

 

Scalene stretch for neck and shoulder pain

 

This is a simple stretch to help with relief from neck and shoulder pain.

 

HOW TO COMPLETE THIS EXERCISE

Sit with good posture. Place one hand on the crown of the head and tilt the ear down to the shoulder, providing gentle pressure to the movement with the hand. Ensure to keep the eyes and nose facing forward throughout. Hold until you feel the stretch release, breathing normally, repeat 2-3 times then return to head to the centre. Repeat on the opposite side.

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