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Health Matters 8/27: Working from Home Can Be a Pain in the Neck

By Megan Advani, PT, DPT

There are plenty of great things about working from home, like a commute calculated in feet rather than miles and a relaxed dress code.

But there is a downside to the change in work environment brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Makeshift workspaces and ill-defined work schedules can be hard on your neck, shoulders, back, hips, and even your wrists.

If working from home is becoming a literal pain in the neck, consider talking to your doctor about physical therapy.

At Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center Princeton Rehabilitation, physical therapists develop individualized treatment plans to help address pain and discomfort brought on by working from home.

Prolonged Sitting Leads to Tight Muscles

Consider that sitting in general – even with perfect posture at a desk – causes certain muscles to shorten and tighten, especially the hip flexors, hamstrings, and pectoral muscles.

Most people, however, don’t have perfect posture and often sit with their head and shoulders forward, and back rounded.

Over time, the neck and upper trapezius muscles, as well as the muscles between the shoulder blades can become tight or overused.

Additionally, typing with your wrists flexed for a prolonged period of time can cause strain and could eventually lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.

This can all happen whether you’re sitting at your desk at your workplace or in your home office.

Kitchens, Couches Put Strain on Bodies

Now consider that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic people are spending most of their time working on computers in locations like the kitchen table or the couch.

This means they are putting even more strain on their bodies.

For instance, most people who sit at a kitchen table or kitchen counter end up with their hands and wrists too high (higher than their elbows), placing increased stress on their wrists, neck and shoulders.

Unlike most office and desk chairs, a kitchen chair is typically not adjustable, so people end up molding their bodies in uncomfortable ways to fit the chair.

Rather work from the couch?

That may seem more comfortable at first, but couches tend not to support proper posture.

If the couch is too low or not firm enough, your hips end up below the knees and your lumbar spine will be curved or flexed. Sitting like this for an extended period of time can lead to tight hip flexors and strain your lower back.

Further, your elbows are not supported, which forces your upper trapezius muscles and neck to work harder. And if the computer is in your lap, you’re now looking down, which encourages forward head posture and increases neck strain.

Make Adjustments

Making adjustments in how you work, and your work setup can help prevent discomfort and pain.

• When possible, sit at an actual desk and use a computer desk chair that is adjustable.

• Make an effort to sit with good posture, with a focus on the neck, shoulders, wrists, and lower back.

• Avoid perched sitting (no back support) by sitting back in the chair and getting a footrest if needed.

• Take a one-minute break every 30 minutes to stand, stretch, and reduce stress and stiffness.

• Always position your computer directly in front of you, not off to the side.

• Avoid positions where you are looking down at the computer screen or your wrists are bent in an awkward position.

• Avoid holding a phone while working for extended time periods. Use ear buds or a headset so you can work hands-free.

Physical Therapy Can Help

In addition to making adjustments to your workspace, taking over-the-counter pain medication and applying ice or heat to sore areas may help ease pain and discomfort.

However, if pain continues, your doctor may recommend physical therapy.

At Princeton Rehabilitation, physical therapists will perform an initial evaluation, including assessing your sitting and standing posture, and determining the strength and flexibility of your postural muscles as well as the muscles affected by prolonged sitting.

Physical therapists can also evaluate your workstation arrangement and work schedule.

Based on the results of the evaluation, the physical therapist will design an individual treatment plan that is specific to you.

Treatment typically includes stretching and strengthening exercise routines that can be continued at home following completion of physical therapy, which usually takes place two to three times per week, for at least four weeks.

To learn more about Princeton Rehabilitation, call 609-853-7840 or visit www.princetonhcs.org.

Megan Advani, PT, DPT, is a doctor of physical therapy and outpatient rehabilitation manager with Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center Princeton Rehabilitation.


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