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  • Dr Gaelan Connell, DC

Is Working From Home a Pain in the Back?

How to build a healthy spine in your home office


Did you know that sitting in the same position for extended periods of time may not be healthy for your spine? In fact, prolonged sitting leads to an increased likelihood of developing spine stiffness and pain. (1) Roughly 6 in 10 office workers report physical discomfort which can include neck pain, headaches, and upper limb repetitive strain injuries. (2) If you’ve started working from home then you might be feeling some of these aches and pains.


Setting up a home office is a challenge, since there are no home office guidelines and most homes can’t accommodate typical office furniture. Continue reading if you work from home as we share seven tips to build a healthy spine in your home office.

Have you found yourself working from home recently and trying to decide whether to work from your kitchen table, coffee table or even your bed? Since the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 5 million workers have transitioned to working from home. (3) Presently, 4 in 10 workers in Canada work from home which is a drastic change from data reported in 2008.3, (4) This highlights a significant change in our workforce and a new challenge for the musculoskeletal health of Canadian workers.

It also remains unclear how many workers receive training or support while transitioning to a home office. The uncertain duration of the COVID-19 pandemic means that most workplaces will encourage their employees to work from home for the remainder of 2020. Working from home can be an exciting new change but working from bed or couch quickly becomes tiresome and uncomfortable.

Here are seven ways to improve your home office ergonomics and strengthen your back.

  1. Motion is lotion for your spine.

A common misconception is that we need to sit still in our office chair and maintain perfect posture. This myth has been propagated for years but isn’t based on any reputable science. A recent study reported that prolonged static sitting can increase low back discomfort. (5) The solution to back discomfort and stiffness due to prolonged sitting is simple: movement. In fact, fidgeting has been shown to decrease back pain episodes over time. (6)


2. Use a chair with a backrest.

It’s tempting to sit on a stool or exercise ball, but research shows that a backrest can help reduce low back pain. (7) It doesn’t need to be an expensive chair, as long as there is a backrest.


3. Sit-stand desk.

Moving from a seated to standing work posture every 30 minutes throughout the workday can reduce low back discomfort and fatigue. (8) It can also help improve productivity.8 Sit-stand desks come in various forms, however the most important feature is automated height adjustment. Ideally, the desk can raise and lower with the touch of a button. I’ve heard too many excuses from people lamenting that manual height adjustments are cumbersome.


4. Adjust your monitor accordingly.

Proper monitor positioning is an effective way to reduce neck and eye strain.

(9) Computer monitors should be placed at or below eye level and positioned directly in front of the user. While most users prefer a viewing distance of 63-85cm, a simple guide for recommended viewing distance is one arm’s length.


5. Get your eyes checked.

Have you ever found your nose pressed against the computer monitor in order to see more clearly? Leaning your head forward can lead to eye strain and neck stiffness, sometimes resulting in headaches. (10) If you need corrective lenses, wearing them throughout the workday can make it easier to concentrate on maintaining a taller and straighter spine while working.


6. Minimize the time you spend working on the couch or in bed.

Working from your couch or bed sounds like a great idea until you spend an entire workday slumped over your computer. If you develop back pain, bed rest is

proven to be ineffective for managing symptoms. (11) Therefore, it’s much better for the back to be supported in a firm chair with a backrest (remember tip #2!).


7. Exercise while sitting – no excuses!

One of the biggest barriers to exercise is lack of time. What if I told you there were ways to exercise your back and neck while sitting? Try retracting your chin and allowing your head to feel tall. Additionally, roll your head and neck in half-circles to loosen the muscular tension in the neck.


Many Canadian workers are being thrust into working from home due to COVID-19. Employees need resources and support as they transition to working from home. Workers need simple and cost-effective strategies to prevent back and neck pain. Remember that motion is lotion for your spine, so keep moving throughout the day.


Dr. Gaelan Connell is a chiropractor based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He also works remotely as a research associate at Ontario Tech University. Gaelan regularly provides assessment and treatment to patients with occupational injuries to facilitate their rehabiliation and return to work. He is also an author of several peer-reviewed publications on the topic of musculoskeletal health.


References

  1. Greene RD, Frey M, Attarsharghi S, Snow JC, Barrett M, De Carvalho, D. Transient perceived back pain induced by prolonged sitting in a backless office chair: Are biomechanical factors involved? Ergonomics. 2019; 62(11), 1415-1425. doi:10.1080/00140139.2019.1661526

  2. Spyropoulos P, Papthanasiou G, Georgoudis G, Chronopoulos E, Koutis H, Koumoutsou F. Prevalence of Low Back Pain in Greek Public Office Workers. Pain Physician. 2007; 10 (5): 651–659.

  3. Statistics Canada. (2020, April 21). Canadian Perspectives Survey Series 1: COVID-19 and working from home, 2020. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200417/dq200417a-eng.htm

  4. Working at home: An update. (2010, December 7). Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-008-x/2011001/article/11366-eng.htm

  5. Agarwal S, Steinmaus C, Harris-Adamson C. (2018). Sit-stand workstations and impact on low back discomfort: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Ergonomics. 2018;61(4), 538-552. doi:10.1080/00140139.2017.1402960

  6. De Carvalho DE, de Luca K, Funabashi M, Breen A, Wong AYL, Johansson, MS, et al. Association of exposures to seated postures with immediate increases in back pain: A systematic review of studies with objectively measured sitting time. J Manip Physiol Ther. 2020; 43(1), 1-12. doi:10.1016/j.jmpt.2019.10.001

  7. Curran M, O’Sullivan L, O’Sullivan P, Dankaerts W, O’Sullivan K. Does using a chair backrest or reducing seated hip flexion influence trunk muscle activity and discomfort? A systematic review. Human Factors: The Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. 2015; 57(7), 1115-1148. doi:10.1177/0018720815591905

  8. Thorp AA, Kingwell BA, Owen N, Dunstan DW. Breaking up workplace sitting time with intermittent standing bouts improves fatigue and musculoskeletal discomfort in overweight/obese office workers. Occup Environ Med. 2014;71, 765-71.

  9. Woo EHC, White P, Lai CWK. Ergonomics standards and guidelines for computer workstation design and the impact on users' health - a review. Ergonomics. 2016;59(3), 464-475. doi:10.1080/00140139.2015.1076528

  10. Kim I, Lee S. The effect of forward head posture and tension type headache on neck movement: For office worker. Journal of Korean Physical Therapy. 2018; 30(4), 108-111. doi:10.18857/jkpt.2018.30.4.108

  11. Shaheed AC, Maher CG, Williams KA, McLachlan AJ. Interventions available over the counter and advice for acute low back pain: Systematic review and meta-analysis. J Pain. 2014;15(1), 2-15. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2013.09.016

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