How to fix the ergonomics of working from home

Woman at laptop stretching pained neck

The realities of working from home can wreak havoc on your physical health. You may be experiencing chronic pain in your neck, shoulders, back and wrists. While these symptoms may be an annoyance now, you should take the time to address them. It’s much easier to recover and heal when these aches and pains are still relatively minor.

The good news is there are simple steps to ease the pain and prevent more serious injuries from occurring.

Set alarms to remind yourself to get up and move

Our bodies were built for motion. This is the most important concept to remember when seeking to address problems associated with ergonomics. Even if you don’t have the best office chair or the most comfortable desk setup, you can always control how much you move throughout the day.

Regular movement can help to counteract strain caused by awkward postures. I tell my patients that “your best posture is your next posture.” Scheduling regular movement breaks gives our tissues a chance to recover and heal, ideally before we begin to feel any discomfort or pain.

Get a timer or set an alarm on your phone that will go off every 20 to 30 minutes. I suggest putting the timer on the other side of the room. That way, you are forced to stand up and move to turn it off. This break doesn’t have to be long. Aim to stand/move for at least 30 seconds. Two minutes is even better.

Try this quick stretch: Look away from the computer screen and focus on a distant object. Clasp your hands behind your back and pinch your shoulder blades together. At the same time, pull your head back (like you were trying to give yourself a double chin). If you’ve been feeling pain in your back, shoulders and neck on a regular basis while you work at your computer, this simple activity can help to alleviate it.

Sitting may not seem like a stressful activity, but it can be. It doesn’t matter if you are sitting on the hard chair that came with the card table, or you bought an expensive ergonomic chair. If you don’t move, certain parts of your body will become overstressed. Regular movement breaks can help.

If you have time and space, you can also try this stretch: Lie down on your stomach and prop yourself on your elbows. From here, lift your head up and look up toward the ceiling as high as you can. Hold this position for a few seconds, then bring your head down and repeat.

For minor pain, adjusting your workstation can make all the difference

A minor pain is an ache that goes away once you’ve stopped doing the activity that caused it. For example, your shoulder feels strained while you’re typing but the discomfort stops as soon as you’ve finished. In addition, your shoulder doesn’t hurt when you’re doing other types of activities.

This type of pain can often be fixed by making adjustments to your workstation. If possible, invest in a better office chair with lumbar support. Or, use a pillow or rolled-up towel to provide extra cushioning and help you sit up straight in the chair.

Be cognizant about keeping your feet flat on the floor. If that’s not possible (for example, if you’re sitting on a stool), set a box underneath your feet. If you’re using a laptop, get a separate keyboard and mouse. Place the keyboard/mouse on the desk and the laptop on top of a stack of books to avoid hunching over.

If you’re unsure which adjustments you need, ask for help. In most companies, your HR representative is a good place to start.

The pains associated with poor ergonomics should be addressed with the same urgency as any other injury. If treated early, you are more likely to avoid serious health issues. But if allowed to worsen, you could be setting yourself up for longer-lasting musculoskeletal disorders.

If the pain is persistent, reach out to a physical therapist

Musculoskeletal disorders often follow a predictable path. The dull aches and sharp pains become more severe and begin to creep into other activities. Think back to the example of the shoulder pain you may experience while typing. Now imagine you begin to experience this pain not only while typing, but while driving the car or reaching for something in the kitchen. This may be a sign that the issue has progressed.

I recommend seeing a physical therapist at this stage. Persistent pain may hinder your ability to do your job or participate in fun activities with your family. The therapist will pinpoint the problem areas and help the area recover before it gets worse.

If unchecked, symptoms often continue to worsen. You may notice increased tenderness in the area, or redness and swelling. You may feel some tingling or the affected area may begin to feel numb. Eventually, you may notice that you can’t move the joint through its full range of motion, or that you have lost strength in the area. These are all potential signs of a more serious injury and you should see your primary healthcare provider sooner rather than later. Delaying treatment may make it harder to recover and result in a poorer overall outcome.

Preventing these poor outcomes is why steps like improving your workstation and moving/stretching throughout the workday are so vitally important. Making these simple lifestyle changes now can save you from more severe, debilitating health problems down the road.

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