Ever since people started sheltering in place because of COVID-19, we’ve heard from many clients that they’re experiencing more back pain. We can think of plenty of reasons why you may be struggling with a stiffer-than-usual back. The good news is that understanding the root cause of the problem can help you manage your spine health and develop a pain management plan.
Following are a few reasons why sheltering in place and working from home may be bugging your back.
• Your ergonomics are off. While there’s something inviting about working from your couch, staying in this slouched position for too long can strain the tissues in your spine and worsen back pain. Even if you forgo the living room and work from your kitchen table, you still may find yourself in a less-than-ideal setup for logging those work-from-home hours. For example, many people have had to leave their large eye-level computer monitors in the office and make due by hunching over a tiny laptop – not ideal for posture.
• Your screen time has skyrocketed. Between Zoom meetings, social media surfing and online streaming, many of us are spending more time in front of a screen every day. This increases our chance of experiencing “tech neck” posture: head forward and down, shoulders and back rounded. Prolonged time in this position can lead to major strain and tension in the tissues of the spine and hips, as well as other symptoms. It’s even been shown that holding your head just one to two inches forward relative to an ideal midline posture can double or triple the amount of force transmitted through the neck. Ouch!
• You may be sitting more. It’s possible you’re sitting even more than usual now that you’re sheltering at home and spending less time out and about. In addition to prolonging your slouched posture, sitting has been shown in some biomechanical models to impose more pressure on the spine than standing or walking. Plus, prolonged sitting has been linked to a weaker core and tight hip and shoulder musculature, both of which can exacerbate your back pain.
Aside from the physical implications of sheltering in place, also consider that the mental and emotional impacts of COVID-19 may be playing a role, too. According to the Institute for Chronic Pain, psychological stress can actually make your pain feel worse. You may already intuitively know this if you’ve ever noticed that your back hurts more when you’re experiencing a lack of sleep and feeling overwhelmed. What’s the connection? Mental stress activates the nervous system and triggers the release of certain inflammatory molecules, which can heighten pain sensitivity and tissue irritation.
Steps to better back health
Many people have been reluctant or unable to see a provider due to clinic closures and concerns about unnecessary exposure. While understandable, delaying necessary medical care may cause a small issue to progress into a bigger problem.
If you’re experiencing new or worsening back pain since social-distancing measures were first implemented, you’re not alone. And there is plenty you can do about it.
Getting up on your feet throughout your day can make a positive impact on your spinal health by preventing poor posture, promoting circulation and even reducing the risk of weight gain.
Consider these tricks to get you moving:
• Set a timer on your phone to go off at regular intervals – at least once or twice per hour.
• Create a stand-up desk setup if possible.
• Use the time you would have spent commuting to and from work as a chance to go out for a walk or get some exercise.
Along with these tips, there are several other things to address in caring for your back so that you can get through your day more comfortably. Body awareness, movement and exercise are all important and can be effectively guided by a good physical therapist to address your individual situation.
Kim Gladfelter is owner, physical therapist and Pilates instructor at PhysioFit Physical Therapy & Wellness, 1000 Fremont Ave., Suite 108, Los Altos. For more information, call (650) 887-6046 or visit physiofitpt.com.