Has Remote Work Wreck Your Back?

By June Ramli

Dear Readers: An Audio version of this article is available below.

Kuala Lumpur, July 12: Lockdowns are a norm today – no thanks to COVID-19. In Sydney, a recent spike in cases has resulted in a total lockdown in the city with no end in sight.
While in Malaysia, the perennial Movement Control Order (MCO) has stopped people from living their best lives.
With all these lockdowns, remote working has been more popular than ever.
In a recent study published by the International Journal of Health Sciences and Research, 70.5 per cent of individuals aged between 18-65-years-old have reported discomfort and pain, especially in the lower back and neck region as a result of working from home.
This information, while not surprising, is alarming as more and more professionals report increasing incidences of pain in the back and neck region.
Given the scenario above, DailyStraits.com has taken the initiative to interview Malaysian-based ALTY (Adding Life to Years) Orthopaedic Hospital Spine and Trauma Surgeon, consultant Orthopaedic Dr Lim Sze Wei (pictured above) on ways to look after one’s spine and back health while working from home. Here are some of his insights to our questions:

What are some of the common back health issues that may arise for those working from home?

Musculoskeletal pain from a not-quite-right desk set-up, unsupportive chair, or just long hours sitting down is a common back health issue among workers—especially in a home environment. When working from home, it is easy to sit with bad posture and wind up with muscle aches. It’s tempting to work from your bed or couch, and even your dining room chair that won’t provide you with the same support as an office chair. At ALTY Orthopaedic Hospital, we are seeing rising cases of back and neck problems in Malaysians between the 25-40 year age group, particularly in those who are working from home and spending long hours in front of their devices. With Malaysia entering another full Movement Control Order (MCO), we can continue to see a rise in back and neck related disorders amongst young working professionals.

Does ergonomics at the home matter?

Work from home practices has shifted movement-related dynamics as working professionals remain glued to their desks and screens for longer hours. Sitting for such extended periods without proper ergonomic support and posture is detrimental to not only your spine and back muscles but to your overall health.
In many instances, we see people working on their laptops for long hours while slouching on the couch or even lying on the bed complaining of back and neck pain. This is the inevitable outcome of improper sitting and working positions. Employees have to sit at their workstation for eight hours, so ergonomics are essential and proper ergonomic alignment matters. That said, you don’t need to make heavy investments into ergonomics if you are working for long hours with a desk setup. Some simple changes in the desk setting and posture alertness can help to mitigate long term effects arising from lower back pain. For example, the way you angle your laptop or screen while working is important to reduce incidences of neck pain. An ideal laptop height and angle let you view the screen without rotating or flexing your neck. Consider using a laptop stand or larger screen when working from home. One tip is to simply elevate the laptop with a stack of books.

Can posture-related pain lead to other severe problems of the spine?

Unsupported postures cause the loads on your spine to disperse incorrectly, weakening the tissues in your lower back. As a result, the intricate network of muscles, discs, and joints in your back tend to be pushed beyond their tolerable limit, causing pain. Most of us tend to wave off these aches and pains, it is important to remember that these can manifest into severe long term degenerative problems of the spine such as slipped disc and sciatica pain leading to further discomfort.

How can we improve our spine health while working from home?

Fortunately, by changing certain lifestyle habits and paying more attention to your posture, you can reduce your risk of painful spine conditions in the future. Here are some factors to take into consideration:

Set up an adequate workstation – As we get accustomed to extended periods of working from home, it becomes very important to have a proper workstation set up that allows you to sit and work comfortably. While we might not be able to have a complete commercial set up, comprising ergonomic chairs etc. at home, in most cases a table and chair is good enough. You can even place a cushion at the back of your chair to support your spine while sitting.

Include stretches in routine – A good way to avoid aches and pains at the end of the day is to include some light stretching movements in your workday. Not only is stretching beneficial for your back, but it is also a great way to take a break from the screen, improve blood circulation and mental stimulation.

Mind your posture – To maintain good posture at the desk is to provide your back and neck good support. Consider using a toadstool so that your feet are well supported, keep your elbows at a 90-degree angle as you work on your laptop and change your position a few hours to avoid slouching on the desk. You can also get a family member or friend to nudge you when you start slouching, so you can correct your sitting position.

What are some of the quick fix exercises of self-massages that one can do to fix their back problems?

Exercise increases blood flow to the lower back area, which may reduce stiffness and it can help to strengthen as well as alleviate lower back pain. Simple stretches like cat and cow posture, toe touches, leg and calf extensions and head rotations are good enough, to begin with. You can also try doing lower back rotational stretches to help relieve tension in the lower back and trunk. It also gently works the core muscles to improve stability. Another exercise is the pelvic tilt which can release tight back muscles and keep them flexible. While you’re sitting down on your chair, you can also try the seated lower back rotational stretch to help relieve pain, work the core muscles and strengthen the lower back. Also, include regular intervals from the screen and walk around your workspace to keep your spine and back muscles active. Together, this simple routine done for a few counts can alleviate the stress in your back muscles, reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries and improve posture and muscle coordination.

If the back pain persists, what should one do?

If the pain continues to persist over six weeks, is accompanied by sensations of numbness, tingling and has started to spread to the hip, legs, foot region, consult your physician immediately. In most cases, mechanical pain or pain that arises from incorrect postures, sitting for longer hours etc. improves if followed by periods of rest. If your pain has not improved after long resting periods and you experience other symptoms like loss of appetite, fever etc. it could be an indication of several other disorders including spinal infection. This requires proper diagnosis and further consultations to ensure that medical intervention is given at the right time.

Editor’s Note: The study titled ‘Prevalence of Neck Pain and Back Pain in Computer Users Working from Home during COVID-19 Pandemic: A Web-Based Survey” was done by Manali Shah and Ruchi Desai, Assistant Professor, L J Institute of Physiotherapy, L J Campus, Ahmedabad. It was published in February 2021 by the International Journal of Health Sciences and Research.
Method: A Google Survey form was generated and circulated among computer users working from home in November 2020. The form was a self-generated form with questions about their demographics, working hours, working place, knowledge about ergonomics etc. and also included neck disability index and Oswestry low back pain questionnaire. At the beginning of the questionnaire, consent was taken from participants. It was given to different IT company heads and the HR department. They approved the content of the questionnaire with few modifications. Then that form was distributed to employees working from home during the COVID-19 Pandemic through a digital platform. The data was collected for three weeks and analysed using SPSS version 20.

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