Working from home and lower back pain: Ergonomics and exercise to the rescue
[5 MIN READ]
In this article:
Why the home office can be bad for your back
Providence physical therapist explains why it’s good to keep the 3 Ps in mind when setting up your desk
Learn stretches and exercises that can prevent back pain from sitting for long periods
If you’ve been working from home for a while and are noticing lower back pain that lingers, it could be caused by your home office set-up. Working longer hours, not having a supportive chair and poor posture can all lead to back pain.
“The rapidness in which people were sent home to work [at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic] left little to no time to set up a proper office space,” explains Julie Larson, physical therapist at Providence. “Also, without the usual distractions of work, people find themselves sitting for 3-4 hours or more without getting up. That extended sitting leads to poor posture, which can ultimately lead to pain.”
“The stress from juggling life at home can also increase pain from ramped-up cortisol, tightness in muscles, shallow breathing, and decreased circulation throughout the body,” she adds. “It’s been a perfect storm of factors that contribute to back and neck pain.”
Julie shares advice on how to improve the ergonomics of your home office; increase your lower back strength; and how it all can help reduce your pain.
How to set up an ergonomic home office
When it comes to setting up an office that will help improve back and neck pain, Julie encourages you to remember the “3 Ps:”
- Put it close
- Positional changes
Julie breaks down each of these “Ps” and how they can help you relieve pain and sit up a little taller throughout the day.
Proper posture can help take the stress off your neck and elbows. “Prolonged sitting forces your spine’s natural 'S' curve into a 'C' curve, which puts more stress on your muscles, ligaments, discs, and tissue,” explains Julie.
Use these tips to help position yourself properly in your chair:
- Ears are over your shoulder (not in front of your shoulders).
- Elbows should be by your sides with wrists comfortably resting on a round or soft surface. (Hand towels and wrist gel pads work well.)
- Support your back with your chair, using a small lumbar pillow or towel roll.
- Feet should be flat on a surface. If they don’t reach the floor comfortably, use a footrest, stack of books, or even reams of paper.
Put it close
The most important step, according to Julie, is to adjust your seat height so your eyes are lined up 3 inches below the top of your screen if using a desktop computer, or tilt your laptop screen back to 120 degrees, just off vertical. “Your body will always try to find this position, even if you have the perfect posture in your seat,” she shares.
Other tips to keep your screen and computer properly aligned with your posture include:
- Screen should be no more than an arm’s length away.
- Keyboard and screen should be kept directly in front of you with the mouse to the side of your keyboard. Move your mouse back if it gets away from you during use.
If you’re working from a laptop, you may also want to consider purchasing a freestanding keyboard. This will allow you to raise your screen to the proper height without elevating your arms in order to type.
Avoid staying stationary when you’re working. Instead, try to get up every 45-50 minutes, even if it’s just to walk around the room.
“We have 360 joints in our body that need to move to stay healthy. Our body needs to move in order to circulate blood through the body. This significantly helps reduce pain and stiffness,” says Julie.
Keep your body loose with a few quick and simple movements during a stretch break:
- 3 big shoulder circles moving shoulders backward.
- 3 neck rolls from neck to shoulder; roll forward along the chest to the other shoulder.
- 2 large breaths to fill your lungs and then blowing air forcefully out.
- 5 squats in front of your desk chair.
Exercises for a stronger back
Just like any other part of your body, exercise can help strengthen and support your back.
“A scheduled walk, every day for 30 minutes, can do a lot to strengthen your lower back and the muscles that support your spine,” Julie states.
Other great exercises for your back include:
- Bridges: This exercise targets many different areas, including the glutes (buttock muscles) and hamstrings. It helps strengthen your core, which plays an important role in supporting your lower back and spine.
- Clamshells: It may sound (and look) a little funny but clamshells are another great exercise to strengthen your hips and stabilize your pelvic muscles.
- Bird dogs: You may not think of your core when it comes to strengthening your back, but it plays an important role in stabilizing the muscles, tendons and tissues in your lower back. A bird dog is another great exercise to target these ab muscles. All you need is a soft spot on the floor!
Don’t forget about the importance of stretching, either. Regular stretches can help improve your flexibility and mobility. Yoga stretches like child’s pose or cobra are a great way to get movement in your spine.
Whatever approach you take, make exercise a priority. There are many great and effective home workouts that you can do with basic household items, like a towel or soup can.
These are just a few simple steps you can take to help relieve back pain. If you still are struggling with pain that interferes with your daily life, consider talking to a specialist. Julie and her colleagues are available for telehealth visits to help assess your office set-up and make recommendations that can help you feel better.
Find a doctor
If you’re struggling with back pain, talk to your primary care provider. They can diagnose your pain and, if necessary, refer you to a physical therapist or specialist to help improve your mobility.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.