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Is working from home a pain in the neck — literally?

Posted February 08, 2021 by Ann Wargo PT MsMHA CMCP CAPS

Man rubbing neck in discomfort while working from des at home

Many agree one positive that has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the work-from-home order to prevent further spread. No more long commutes and fighting traffic, more time spent with family and less interruption from chitchat around the water cooler.
In the United States, it’s estimated nearly 50 percent of the working population is now working at home. But as more and more companies embrace remote working for the long haul, one negative has emerged: new or worsening back or neck pains that can lead to long-term health problems.
The temptation to work on the couch or at the kitchen table can literally cause a pain in the neck. These makeshift homes offices, complete with a chair without proper lumbar support, a stack of books to prop up your monitor or a laptop that forces you to look down at the screen, don’t bode well for proper ergonomics.
The proper posture while sitting at your desk is one where your hips and knees are level, your spine vertical or slightly reclined, and the small arch in your lower back maintained. Your shoulders should be relaxed and down away from your ears, elbows by your side and bent at a 90-degree angle with your wrists straight. Your head should be facing front without thrusting forward.
Slouching, sitting too long, stretching your wrists and looking down at a screen all put physical stress on your neck and back that you may not notice right away, but you definitely will feel the pain later on.
So don’t let your newfound freedom of working from home be a pain in the neck — literally. Summa Health offers 5 simple solutions to tweak your home office for proper ergonomics to reduce or prevent neck and back pain as we ride out this pandemic.


Position your monitor at eye level.

When your monitor is at eye level, your neck and shoulders are in a neutral position. If you’re looking down at a monitor, you will flex your neck and head forward, which puts strain on your muscles.
If you’re using a laptop, hooking it up to a desktop monitor is ideal to bring it up to eye level. If that’s not possible, stack a few books under the laptop to raise it up.

Find a supportive, adjustable chair

The chair you choose should offer both support and comfort to your lower back and hips. Your chair should allow you to recline slightly and the small arch in your lower back should be maintained. Make sure it has a lumbar support cushion. If that’s not possible, you can place a small pillow or towel behind your lower back to maintain an arch.
In addition, your chair should be adjustable to bring you to the proper height and position. Your hips and knees should be level, and make sure your feet sit flat on the floor. If that’s not the case, try using a footstool.


Keep your wrists flat and straight

While typing, your wrists should be in a neutral position and not bent up or down. You can purchase an ergonomic keyboard and mouse pad to keep your hand and forearm in a straight line.
If you’re using a laptop and it’s raised with books, use an external keyboard and mouse. This will allow you to raise your screen, while keeping your elbows at a 90-degree angle.
Also, make sure the keyboard and mouse are close to your body so you don’t have to reach to use them.


Don’t sit! Consider a standing desk

Working in a standing position for a few hours each day is good for you, so consider swapping out your sitting workstation for a standing desk. You will burn a few extra calories and reduce chronic low back pain caused from prolonged sitting.
Standing in an upright position with your knees straight requires very little muscle effort in your neck or back, promotes better circulation and strengthens your legs.
Good standing posture is symmetrical from your ankles to your head. Your weight should be evenly distributed on both feet, spine straight, shoulders back and your head lifted and facing forward.
Just be sure you adjust your monitor to eye level and your desk to a height where your elbows and wrists are at a 90-degree angle when typing.
Also, make sure to wear comfortable shoes that have arch support. Proper footwear can help relieve pain all the way up your spine.


Get moving to prevent pain

In general, you should avoid staying in any one position for an extended period of time because no matter how good the position, it will put strain on your muscles. That’s why periodic breaks every 45 minutes or so are key to reducing or even preventing pain in your neck and back.
Stretch and walk around the house, touch your toes, roll your shoulders, do sit-ups and run in place. All of these moves get your blood flowing, and loosen and stretch your muscles, while also giving your eyes a break and refreshing your mind. Plus, building core strength is helpful for improving posture and supporting your lower back.


If you’ve tried these tips and your pain is ongoing, talk to a Summa Health physical therapist, occupational therapist or orthopedic specialist. We offer many therapies to help you overcome neck and shoulder pain due to prolonged sitting or staying in one position for too long.



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