When Working From Home Causes You (Actual) Pain
Physical therapists on how to relieve aches and pains in your neck, back, shoulders and more
En español | 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.
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Another option: While sitting, keep your torso straight and tall, place one hand behind your head and gently push your head toward your chest — until you feel a good stretch in the back of your neck. Hold this position for at least 20 seconds.
Also try: Wrapping an ice pack around your neck, like a travel pillow, for 10 minutes. Or applying a soothing cream that works for you — whether it's a menthol-, capsaicin- or CBD-based formula, Cladis suggests.
For your shoulders: Stand up and place your back against a wall. While keeping your arms resting against the wall, make a goalpost shape with them by bending your elbows at 90 degrees with your hands up. Slowly slide your arms straight up the wall as far as you comfortably can, while keeping your shoulders down and relaxed and your lower back in contact with the wall. Then slowly lower your arms to the starting position. Do 10 repetitions.
Another option: Stand in the center of a doorway, bend your elbows and place your forearms on either side of the doorjamb so they're bent at a 90-degree angle from your sides with your hands facing upward. Keeping your arms in the doorjamb, take a small step back with one foot and lean into the stretch, while keeping your neck straight. (Your arms will be pulled behind you, and you'll feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders, Gillanders says.) Hold this position for 20 seconds.
Also try: Applying ice for 10 to 15 minutes at a time to reduce inflammation and calm muscle spasms, suggests Gillanders.
For your back: Get down on the floor on all fours so you can do a tension-releasing cat-camel stretch. Your wrists and arms should be directly under your shoulders, and your knees directly under your hips and bent at 90-degree angles. As you tuck your chin toward your chest, slowly round your upper back up toward the ceiling; pause for a couple of seconds, then slowly relax your back, drawing your shoulders back and dropping your chest toward the floor while arching your back slightly and looking up. Hold this position for a couple of seconds. Then repeat 10 times.
Another option: While on your hands and knees, push back into the child's pose, a classic yoga pose. Push your butt back onto your heels, with your toes touching and your knees apart. Lower your upper body between your knees, place your head forward on or near the floor and stretch your arms along the floor above your head. Hold for 30 seconds.
Also try: Using a foam roller on your back. “When you're in a prolonged static position, your muscles don't get a whole lot of oxygen — foam rolling improves delivery of oxygen to the muscles,” explains Thea Katrina Rigor Cohen, senior physical therapist and clinical education coordinator at the Montefiore Health System in the Bronx, New York. There are two ways to do this: With the foam roller parallel to your spine, slowly lie down on top of it so that your head is supported at one end and your butt is at the other end. Bend your knees, place your feet flat on the floor and your forearms on the floor to provide stability; gently rock back and forth on the foam roller from side to side, giving yourself a soothing back massage. Alternatively, place the foam roller perpendicular to your body and lie on top of it so that it's against your lower back, Gillanders suggests. Bend your knees, place your feet on the floor and support yourself with your forearms as you gently rock up and down to roll out the tension in your lower back.
No foam roller? Apply a heating pad for 10 minutes to relieve pain and tension.
For your hips: To relieve aches and stiffness in this joint, stand up and do a hip flexor stretch. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, and bring your right foot about 18 inches in front of your left so your feet are staggered on the floor. Place your hands on your hips, keep your back straight and your pelvis tucked, bend your right knee and slowly shift your weight forward until you feel a gentle stretch in the front of your left hip and thigh. Hold this for at least 20 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Another option: Do a standing figure 4 stretch. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, then bend your right knee, lift your right foot off the floor, rotate your right thigh externally and cross your right ankle over your left thigh as you sit back in a gentle squat (feel free to hold onto the back of a chair for balance). Hold this position for at least 20 seconds. Then repeat on the other side. You could also sit in a chair and do this: Simply cross your right ankle over your left thigh and gently press the right knee toward the floor, as you sit tall and keep your weight on both sides of your butt. Repeat on the other side.
Also try: Putting a tennis ball or a ball about the size of a grapefruit where your right back pants pocket is and lean against the wall. “Push with your feet as much as you need to so you can modulate the pressure,” advises Gillanders. Then repeat this on the left side. This will ease tension in your glutes (butt muscles), which can stem from and contribute to tight hips.