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How to Ease Your “Work From Home” Aches and Pains

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“Sit up straight and stop slouching!” You’ve likely heard this since childhood, but is there such a thing as perfect posture? The answer is a bit complicated. The latest research shows that it may be more important to think about a “balanced” or “dynamic” posture than perfect posture, and we’re also discovering that our ability to change positions and move may be more critical than our static position while standing or sitting.

When we sit for long periods, we tend to lose our discipline and slouch, look down with a very poor head posture, and forget to stand up, walk around and stretch to keep good blood flow.

Now here’s the good news: It doesn’t take a lot to start feeling better. Aside from prioritizing stress relief (getting adequate sleep can go a long way), the experts say adjusting your environment and building more purposeful, non-exercise movement into your day will do wonders.

Optimize Your Workstation

Even if you’re lucky enough to have a home office, that doesn’t guarantee you’re set up for ergonomic success. “We’re sitting in positions that aren’t necessarily the correct position, and for longer,” says Jessica Dorrington, PT, MPT, OCS, CMPT, PRPC, CSCS, director of physical therapy at Therapeutic Associates Bethany Physical Therapy in Portland, Oregon. “So we’re starting to see more neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand pain — things that could easily be solved by just changing what our computer station looks like.”

Start with your computer

One of the biggest obstacles facing people who’ve been thrust into remote work is that they’re often using a laptop instead of a desktop computer. “Laptops can be good for very short periods, but from an ergonomic standpoint, they’re a bit of a nightmare,” says Dorrington.

Place your laptop (or monitor) on a riser or a stack of books so that it’s at eyebrow level and then pair an external mouse and keyboard to it — ideally one without the 10-key on the right-hand side so you don’t have to reach as far to use your mouse (if you’re right handed). The keyboard should lay flat (not higher in the back). And try to avoid letting your fingers hover above the mouse, which can strain elbow and hand muscles.

Choose your chair wisely

What you sit on can have a big impact on how you feel. When workers were given an ergonomic office chair and taught how to properly use it, they reported less musculoskeletal pain immediately afterward, according to a 2012 systematic review.

Lock your office chair (if possible) so that you can’t recline backward. “You want your weight to go through your legs and your buttocks,” says Dorrington. If you don’t have an office chair, using a rolled-up hand towel as lumbar support can help you sit more upright. Adjust the height of the chair so that your feet are flat on the ground (or resting on a footrest), your forearms parallel to the floor, your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, and your wrists are flat. And lose the armrests, if they come off, so you can slide your chair underneath your desk and be closer to your keyboard. “Maintaining even just a short reach out in front of your body for a sustained period puts a lot of strain on your neck muscles,” says Dorrington.

Take frequent breaks

If you have the ability to switch between a seated and standing desk throughout the day, do it. In a 2011 study, workers who reduced their sitting time by 66 minutes a day experienced less upper back and neck pain and improved moods. “Our body doesn’t like to be in any position more than 30 minutes,” says Dorrington. “So moving from sit to stand and stand to sit every 30 minutes is a great suggestion” even if it’s just to walk around your house. Move the printer to an area that requires you to stand up and walk to get a printout.

90% of the issues that we have are overuse injuries where the tissue doesn’t like being in a certain position for that long.

Address Your Aches and Pains

We’ve all heard the warnings about “sitting disease,” but being sedentary for too long can also wreak havoc on your body in ways a daily workout won’t necessarily fix — especially if your workstation suffers from any of the issues above.

“I would say 90% of the issues that we have are overuse injuries where the tissue doesn’t like being in a certain position for that long,” says Dorrington. “So it’s about changing your habits to reduce the force on the [muscle] tissue.”

The best way to do that is to stand up and move more. Research recommends working your way up to two hours a day of accumulated standing or light activity (like walking) during work hours and then progressing on to four (Dorrington’s recommendation to alternate sitting and standing every 30 minutes could get you there).

If you’re doing that and are still in pain, performing some targeted stretches, like the ones below, as often as needed can help. Hold each stretch for 30 to 45 seconds unless otherwise indicated, and then switch sides, says Dorrington. “If you have true tightness in a muscle, you’ll want to do up to about five cumulative minutes of stretching a day to make some lasting benefits.”

Neck and shoulder pain

Why it might be happening: “A muscle that has to work a lot is going to get angry,” says Dorrington. And if you’re constantly leaning your head forward while working on a laptop or tilting your head to secure your phone between your head and your shoulder, your little neck muscles are forced to work a lot. If trigger points (think: knots in your muscle or connective tissue) develop or the joints in your neck become irritated, they can refer pain down your neck and into your shoulder.

How to treat it: “If it’s just a trigger point, you can reach your hand up and press on the muscle for a few seconds and that can alleviate some of the symptoms,” says Dorrington. You can also stretch the tight muscles: While standing or sitting up straight, rest the back of your right hand on the small of your back and reach your left hand over the top of your head. With your left hand, gently pull your head down toward your left shoulder, stretching the right side of your neck. To intensify the stretch, drop your shoulder toward the ground, keeping your right hand against your lower back.

Upper back pain

Why it might be happening: Pain across your shoulder blades can be coming from your neck (see above) or your arms. “If your elbows aren’t at your sides and at 90-degree angles and you’re having to reach your arms forward to type or use your mouse, those back muscles can get fatigued,” says Dorrington.

How to treat it: Stand or sit upright and squeeze your shoulder blades together and down as if there were a pencil between them that you want to capture in place. Avoid shrugging your shoulders towards your ears. Hold for five seconds and release. Repeat 10 times. You should feel the stretch and lengthening in your trapezius muscles along the tops of your shoulders.

Stretching your pectoral (chest) muscles — not your upper back muscles, which may already be overstretched from too much hunching — can also help. Stand facing the corner of a wall with your feet hip-width apart. Place your palms onto each side of the wall at head height. Keeping your core tight, step your left foot forward, pressing your palms and forearms into the wall. You should feel a stretch across your chest.

Lower back pain

Why it might be happening: Again, being sedentary for too long or leaning forward too much tend to be the biggest culprits.

How to treat it: Stand up and do 10 backward bends. Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping your knees straight, place your hands on the small of your back and gently lean backward, pushing your hips forward and your gaze toward the ceiling. Hold for one second and then come back to center.

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