It’s Back Care Awareness Week – and yes, that’s a thing. With increasing numbers of people working from home hunched over laptops we ask; how’s your back?
Our spine is arguably the most important bone in our body. It’s not difficult to see why the word ‘backbone’ is commonly used as a metaphor to describe a central support system. As with many things this year, our back health is something that’s taken a battering. Working from home means back pain is rife.
The COVID lockdown has meant that a record number of people have been working from home. With many people having to resort to working from their sofas, posture pain is becoming a daily battle. Our bodies weren’t built for sitting on a bed, or slouching over a coffee table for eight hours a day. Address these issues and you can avoid developing more serious spinal problems.
Major Nell Mead is a chartered physiotherapist. She runs her own clinic in central London after serving the British Army as a physiotherapy officer for 10 years. She spoke to us about the recent increase in people needing support, as well as the disadvantages of working at home.
Your home might not be set up properly for work
“People’s injuries are getting a lot more predictable. I’m seeing a lot of people with stiff and sore backs and necks, and lots of neck-related headaches.
“I’ve been seeing my patients online during the lockdown, and I’ve seen a variety of ‘workstation’ setups. Working from the sofa or the kitchen table seems to be prevalent, and laptops seem to be the most-used type of computer. This is disastrous posture-wise.
“Sofas are generally unsupportive, kitchen tables are too high (they’re designed to be at the right height to bring your food up to your face, not to let your arms and shoulders relax) and laptops force your face and your hands to be too close together. People also have a tendency to stop moving when they work from home; and being still is one of the worst things you can do for your body.”
Being still is one of the worst things you can do for your body
It’s not all about posture – get moving
“It’s not so much about posture, as nobody stays in ‘perfect’ posture, whatever that is (and it’s different for everyone), for more than a few seconds at a time. The more important thing is to move regularly. Take your body through its full range of movement at least once a day – because it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’.
“If you sit or stand still for two hours, you will lose 50 per cent of your spinal disc height, which isn’t great – so you should get up and move and stretch at least once an hour. Some of my patients find this really hard to remember, so I ask them to set alarms on their phones or computers, to remind them.”
Your device could be doing the damage
“Avoid using a laptop – it’s disastrous for your back. If you must use a laptop, then get an external keyboard and mouse.
“The middle of your screen should be level with your chin. And set your keyboard and mouse below the height of your elbows. This is impossible to achieve if you use a laptop on its own.
Don’t use your laptop for long periods. Backs are designed to move…
“Don’t use your for long periods. Backs are designed to move and they get unhappy if they are not moved regularly. If you have stiffened up and doing much more movement for a couple of weeks does not sort it out, then it’s time to see a professional.”
Advice from an osteopath…
We also spoke to osteopath Suzanne Burgess, who gave some helpful pointers for adjusting your position during the day to prevent back pain.
“We often say ‘your best posture is your next posture’, so mix it up a bit because even correct posture isn’t ideal all day. No position is bad for a short time, (unless you’re already sore and it immediately brings it on – in which case avoid it!). But have an idea what you’re aiming towards position-wise before you start a working day. And try to get your area as comfortable as you can.
“Move at least once an hour. If your back is acutely sore, try lifting your laptop up a bit higher on a few books so you’re not bending so much to type and put a pillow in the small of your back to support tight muscles. Go for a five-minute brisk walk mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and go up and down the stairs a few times to get some circulation going. Use phone calls to walk around if you’ve got a headset or hands free. Anything to change your position and get blood flow to the muscles will help. Some really simple stretches we give out are:
- Stretching your hands behind your back to stretch your chest muscles
- Gently side bend your body right and left to stretch your waist and back muscles – you can hold on to the leg of the chair for support if it’s very sore.
- Stand up put your hands on your lower back and gently lean back to stretch the front of the hips and give your back a rest from being bent forwards.
- Stand up behind your chair and pull your heel to your bottom to stretch your thigh muscles.
- Place hands or elbows on the table and walk your feet backwards.
If you relate to these problems, or you want to prevent bad posture and pain, we’ve done the research and made a list of things that can help. Here’s what you can (and can’t!) do to alleviate the pain.
Sit down for long periods of time. Our bodies are designed to be mobile, and it’s all too easy to get stuck into sitting for long periods. Stand up every half an hour just to stretch your chest and spine out. Don’t get stuck in a hunched position.
Work from your sofa. We get it, not everyone has the luxury of having a home office with ergonomic desk chair. But try and find other places to set up. You could even stand up at the kitchen side; it burns calories and can keep your spine aligned properly.
Work overtime. It’s really important to stick to your working hours. Sure, it’s a lot easier to lose track of time and run over when you’re at home. You’re not carrying out the physical act of leaving the office and journeying home. But try and mirror your office work day at home, and try to stick to the same structure and routine. And give yourself a full lunch break! No staring at screens or sitting hunched over your device.
Lean on one leg when you’re stood up. It’s a habit that many of us find ourselves doing, leaning most of our weight on one leg with our hip jutted out. This can affect the natural curvature of our spine and put unnecessary stress on our hips and lower back.
Have regular breaks. Set alarms for every hour and just walk around your home. Stretch your legs out and roll your neck to keep everything nicely oiled.
Change position. Try sitting on the floor for a bit, with your laptop on a coffee table or the sofa. Then move everything to your bedroom, or sit at the breakfast bar. Make sure your spine isn’t stuck in one position for too long, or you’ll end up with a stiff neck and achy back.
Incorporate exercise into your working day. Every now and then, stand up, stretch your arms out, look from side to side and roll your shoulders. Practice some yoga poses. Find some online that are directed at the part of your back you’re feeling pain in.
Make sure your sleeping positions are correct. Your neck, spine and legs need to be aligned to avoid curvature of the spine. If you’re finding that you’re experiencing pain in the lower curve of your back, sleep with a pillow between your legs. If you sleep on your stomach, place a pillow underneath your pelvis to keep your lower spine level with your neck.
Have a look at Nell’s Youtube channel for some really good exercises that you can do with minimal effort. She also has an online course that is really helpful for finding stretches that suit you when working from home.