The 5 Best Ways to Protect Your Back While Working from Home
You sit down to check your email at 8:30 in the morning and the next thing you know it's 2:30 in the afternoon and you have yet to move from your desk. Stiff, sore or bad backs don't just happen when you're in the gym. They are baked and prepared during the hours you spend sitting, standing or lying on the couch in all the wrong ways.
If you're spending time working from home, perched in a chair that was meant to be something other than an aerodynamic work station, chances are you're feeling the strain right about now. What can we do to make sure we don't become a back patient when all is said and done with the phase we find ourselves in? We asked Jaclyn Fulop, a physical therapist, for the best tips and tricks to align, strengthen and relax our bodies while working from home.
1 Support Your Spine and Sit at the Diningroom Table
It’s important to remember to stay in a proper ergonomic position to avoid musculoskeletal problems; so, the position you're in while you are sitting in front of that screen is very important. The best place to sit is at a dining room chair because this brings you closest to the proper ergonomic posture.
While working on the couch or a bed can seem comfortable, they both lack the support for proper posture and people working from home should avoid them. For example, sitting on a couch using a laptop causes the body to slouch forward.
Over time, forward head posture can lead to muscle imbalances as the body tries to adapt and find ways to hold the head up. Some muscles become elongated and weakened, whereas others become shorter and tighter. Over time, this will cause a decrease in the cervical spine flexibility, resulting in neck pain which can include degeneration, bulging or herniated discs, pinched nerves and poor posture.
2. Sit Upright, Knees at 90 Degrees, and Grab a Towel!
Sitting in the perfect position is tricky. Try this for the best way to position yourself to be sure that you're supporting your back and core. Try this:
- Keep knees bent at about 90-degree angle with feet flat on the ground.
- Use lumbar support - Add a rolled towel or cushion between your low back and the chair. Sit back in the chair so the roll supports your spine.
- Don’t slouch - Sit up straight with ears directly above the shoulders.
- Alternate setups - Using a standing desk for part of the day or sitting on a yoga ball
- Get up and move!
3. Lower Your Chair, and Other Important Positioning Adjustments
Even with the perfect ergonomic chair, setup it’s important to modify your sitting position from time to time to allow blood flow to evenly reach all parts of your body. I always tell my patients that they should adjust their position every 20 minutes. A trigger point or knot (a taut band in the muscle that becomes tender to touch) can take 20 min to form if the body stays in a static position.
The computer screen placement should be about 20 inches in front of you at arms’ length, the angle of the monitor should be 10-20 degrees and the top of the computer screen should be at eye level. That usually means youo have to lower your chair so you are not bending over to see your screen. Or place books under your computer to raise it on the table in front of you.
Elbows should be placed comfortably at 90 degrees and the wrists should be straight. If you flex or extend the wrists on the keyboard or using the mouse, nerve and tendon related musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and epicondylitis can arise from the repetitive motion of typing and clicking.
Hips and knees should be positioned at 90 degrees while the thighs are parallel to the floor and the feet should be flat on the floor. Be sure to lean all the way back in your chair, with your backrest positioned comfortably on your low back to allow the upper body to be properly supported.
4. Try these 3 Stretches Twice a Day:
- Piriformis Muscle Stretch. Lie on your back and cross the top leg that you'll be stretching over the other. With knees bent to 90 degrees, place both hands together under the knee of the lower leg and gently pull the bottom leg toward your chest and hold both thighs closely until a stretch is felt in the glutes. Hold for 30 seconds, switch sides and repeat 3 times.
- Psoas Major Muscle Stretch. Get into a half-kneeling position (kneeling on one knee). Rotate the forward leg outward (toward the wide) and tighten the gluteal muscles on the side you’re stretching. Next, lean forward through the hip joint open, without arching the low back. A stretch should be felt in the front of the hip flexor. Hold for 30 seconds, switch sides and repeat 3 times.
- Hamstring Stretch - Lie on the back and grasp the leg behind the knee, with leg straight up to ceiling and hip flexed to 90 degrees, with the knee slightly bent. Attempt to straighten the knee while pulling the toes back toward you (to stretch back of leg). Hold for 30 seconds, switch sides and repeat 3 times.
5. Take Care of Your Physical and Emotional Health
You may be tensing your back muscles without knowing it because you're stressed. Breathe through the tension, try to unclench your teeth, relax your shoulders and let your back tension relax. When I get tense I do yoga, some light weights or go running outside. Exercising regularly can stimulate the body to produce natural pain relievers called endorphins to flow for hours afterward, which improves my mood and energy levels all day.
My husband has a lot on his plate right now being mayor of Jersey City, which is the largest city in NJ, so I encourage him to take frequent walks with our son and I so that we can all take a breath, pause and give some time to ourselves, away from all the stress. Contrary to popular belief, when you have a stiff or sore back you need to move more, not less, to get circulation to the spine and injury spot. Just warm up and cool down to work into it gently.
Jaclyn Fulop is a Board Licensed Physical Therapist and Founder of Exchange Physical Therapy Group.