Is working from home doing you more harm than good?
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Ipswich physiotherapist Marc Rapkin of Gilmour Piper explains why we’re getting back and neck pain, and how we can prevent it.
As many of us get reaccustomed to working from home again (or perhaps you’ve not been back to the office yet), it can be easy to slip into bad habits while working remotely – but did you know you could potentially be doing yourself some long-term damage?
It may seem more comfortable to work from the sofa with your laptop, or easier to work from your breakfast bar, but physiotherapist Marc Rapkin has noticed a large number of people coming to his clinic complaining of neck, back and joint pain due in part to the mass office exodus that has seen around 24% of people working exclusively from home, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.
“Neck and back pain are a huge thing at the moment, and we’ve seen a large increase in the number of people coming to see us – I’d say we’ve probably been about 20% busier,” Marc explains. “I’ve seen people who have been working from home sitting on a dining chair with a laptop – it’s terrible, really.”
While most people were given laptops to work from home with – they’re actually not the same as working from a desktop setup.
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“The screens are often at the wrong height, the keyboards are too cramped and without a proper mouse, keyboard and monitor, you run the risk of pain in your neck, wrists, lower back and arms,” Marc adds.
“You also tend to hunch your shoulders forwards and as your vision starts to go, you move closer to the screen and end up sat in a c-shape rather than being nice and upright. That then puts load on the joints in your neck, shoulders, back, and wrists. If you can, opt for a desktop instead of a laptop.”
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However, if you’re unable to swap your laptop for a desktop, you can modify your desk space to ensure that your portable device is working better for you and your body.
Marc suggests investing in a laptop stand if possible, and by attaching a keyboard and mouse to it, it will mimic that ergonomic desktop setup that we’re much more familiar with in an office. Alternatively, rising desks are a great way to alternate between sitting and standing during your work day.
But besides switching up your equipment, what else can you do to ensure that working from home isn’t playing permanent havoc with your posture?
“What I tell people to do is a sit a little bit forwards at the back of their chair, and sit as upright as they can from the lower back. If you sit in a chair and sit with your back against the back of it, you’re always going to be a bit slouch - but if you can come away from the back the chair, and just sit up a little bit, you’ll find your neck and shoulders automatically attain some posture.
“The posture of the neck, shoulders, arms, wrists and hands are all driven from the posture of the lower back – and there’s no office chair in the world that will give you that kind of postural strength. Try and do what your mum told you when you were a child – and sit up straight.”
But as we’re becoming increasingly aware, sitting down for long periods of time isn’t good for the body, and with lockdown making people less active, many are struggling to find that balance between sitting and standing.
“Sitting creates a lot of load, especially on the lower back, and you actually put more load on your back by sitting than standing or laying down. If you can, stand up throughout life a bit more. That way, you can unload all of the structures that you might spend 40 years of your working life loading up. People are more sedentary and not as active as they need to be, but it’s no good going for a 10-mile run at the weekend if you’re sitting for 10 hours a day during the week - it won’t balance out that load.”
If you continue sitting poorly or for too long, you will eventually do yourself long term damage – affecting your neck, back, arms and legs.
“Neck pain normally begins in the neck before it starts to radiate to the shoulders, and down the arm a bit. In the back, you get the same - you start with a bit a pain in the lower back, then it might start to radiate down to the back of the legs, into the buttocks and further down the legs. These are generally a sign that you’ve been overloading the structures and tissue within your body, and they’re not happy.”
With chronic joint pain difficult to manage, there are a number of ways you can help remedy this before it gets too late.
“If you can, sit for 20 minutes while you work and stand for another 20. Combine this with getting up a bit more, whether it’s making yourself a cup of tea or going for a walk. The best thing you can do is get up and walk about, and be sure to take a lunch break. A lot of people don’t when they work from home, and we’re finding more people aren’t having regular breaks, so they’re sitting down continually throughout the day. Not only will getting up do your back and neck good, it’s great for your overall physical and mental health.”
In terms of exercises, Marc recommends focusing on the neck and back, with gentle exercises that can be done throughout the day.
“The neck moves in four different directions – up, down, left and right. To prevent your neck from developing any chronic pain, do movements that don’t hurt. Gently move your neck up and down, and side to side.
“Same with the back. Bend side to side, and then forwards and backwards if you can. As long as it’s not causing your body any pain, it’s going to be good for it.”
However, it’s also worth remembering that you shouldn’t overdo it either. “On the other hand, we’ve also been seeing are people exercising too much and giving themselves stress fractures. Or they’ve put on weight during lockdown so they’re trying to exercise strenuously to shed the weight - which more often than not causes injury and leaves you feeling worse than before.”