If life during the pandemic has literally been giving you a pain in your neck (or shoulders or back), you're not alone. Thanks to stay-at-home orders and office closures, “people may be having new aches and pains because they're less active than usual, they have a different work setup at home or they're doing more cleaning and yard work than they're used to,” reports Stacey Cladis, a physical therapist at Northwestern Medicine in the Chicago area. “Plus, right now we are probably all carrying more tension than we realize,” which can lead to muscle soreness. What's likely not helping? Working from your cobbled-together dining room-office setup.
In fact, experts say that the first step to prevent pain in your neck, shoulders, back and hips is to properly set up your workstation at home. “This is about straight-up ergonomics,” says Robert Gillanders, a spokesman for the American Physical Therapy Association and an ergonomic assessment specialist in the Washington, D.C., area. “You want to avoid assuming a taco position or a C-shape with your spine” while you're sitting.
Some basics: Your computer monitor should be at eye level, with the top of the screen at the level of your eyebrows, so that you're looking straight at it without tilting your head up or down. If you're using a laptop, place it on a stack of books or a shoebox, and use an external keyboard at a comfortable height for your elbows. Make sure you're sitting in a comfortable chair with good support for your lower back; your feet should be flat on the floor and your knees bent at slightly greater than a 90-degree angle. And maintain good posture while you're sitting: Your head should be in line with your shoulders, which should be stacked directly over your hips, Cladis suggests.
"The most important thing is to avoid sustained postures for a long time,” says Rich Willy, chair and assistant professor in the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at the University of Montana. “Take frequent work breaks — once an hour, walk around your house or the block for five or 10 minutes.” Whenever possible, stand for video meetings or take phone calls while walking around.
In addition, try these stretches for four areas where you may be experiencing discomfort during the pandemic:
For your neck: To ease neck tension while you're sitting, bring your right ear toward your right shoulder, while looking straight ahead, and hold it for 20 seconds; then, slowly lift your head and bring your left ear toward your left shoulder and hold this position for 20 seconds before lifting your head. Repeat this several times during the day.