Woman suffering from neck pain while working from home.
Woman suffering from neck pain while working from home.
Woman suffering from neck pain while working from home.

Addressing Neck and Back Pain When You’re Working from Home

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Since the coronavirus pandemic closed many offices in 2020, working from home has become part of the new normal for some. Ergonomics — the science of making your work environment safe, comfortable and efficient — is not always the rule in off-site environments. If your work-at-home setup is causing pain in your neck or back, what can you do?

Terrence G. McGee, P.T., D.Sc., is a physical therapist in the Johns Hopkins Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. A board-certified orthopaedic clinical specialist, McGee has tips to help you stay productive and pain-free while you work from home.

Your home office can be hard on your neck and back

Working from home has benefits: There’s no commute and a relaxed dress code. You can pet the dog and keep your workspace as warm or cool as you choose.

But there are disadvantages, too: Doing your work slouched on the sofa instead of sitting at a desk in an ergonomic chair can leave you with back and neck pain. There could be multiple factors making your home workstation less than ideal for your health, such as:

  • Firmness and type of your chair and presence of lumbar support
  • Height of your chair in relation to your desk
  • Position of your computer and monitors on your desk
  • How often you take breaks from sitting

These and other factors can lead to back and neck pain as you work from home.

How to Prevent or Reduce Back or Neck Pain When Working from Home

Give your back a break: Keep moving

Even with an ergonomic office arrangement, working in one position without breaks is a major cause of back and neck pain. McGee says this is especially a problem among those who are no longer in the cubicle.

“Because of a notion that you might be seen as less productive working at home, intuitively we want to do more. We’re spending more time than ever in front of our computers in less-than-ergonomic situations,” McGee says.

His remedy is simple: “I recommend getting up every 30 minutes, even if it’s just to stretch and get out of that head-forward position many people are working in as they’ve been working on documents and sitting through Zoom meetings.

“Even if it breaks your train of thought, a trip to the kitchen for a coffee or water refill or a quick walk around the yard can help,” McGee says. “It sounds corny, but physical therapists have a saying, and it’s true: ‘motion is lotion.’ Staying active can make a huge difference.”

Consider a Standing Desk

“Therapists often advise patients to change positions every 30 minutes to one hour when they’re working,” McGee says. “But since this can be difficult in work environments where people tend to not want to break from their level of engagement in a particular task, the standing desk is an ideal compromise.”

Choosing a Standing Desk

“Consider your specific needs, including your space and budget, which are both important,” McGee says. “If you’re not sold on a standing desk, you can consider a standing desk converter that’s semipermanent and can work with your existing workspace.”

Other considerations when you’re choosing a standing desk option:

  • Ease of installation. “Read customer reviews, since what seems simple is not always the case,” McGee says.
  • Height. How “tall” do you need to go? Height adjustments aren’t universal, so check the range of any standing desk accessory to make sure it works with your needs.
  • Electric vs. manual. Manually adjusting types may be easier on your budget.
  • Adaptability and accessories. Think about whether extras such as wheels, additional shelves or left/right orientation are important to you.

Using Your Standing Desk

If you use a standing desk for part of your workday, here are a few pointers.

“Setup is key!” says McGee, who emphasizes that a standing desk arrangement should follow all the other ergonomic principles, such as keeping your arms bent at a 90-degree angle. And you should still try to change your position every 30 minutes to one hour.

As you are standing at the desk, shifting your weight from one foot to another is OK, says McGee. “In fact, it is something I will incorporate into my plan of care. However, the caveat is to engage our muscles when doing so — particularly the glutes. Too often we rely on passive tissues to support us throughout the day versus engaging our muscles to keep us upright against gravity.

Invest in an Ergonomic Chair

A bed, armchair or sofa is great for relaxing, but may not be ideal for spending hours hunched over your computer. Setting up a workspace with a table or desk can put you in a better position for your workday. For the times you are in front of the screen, investing in a good chair can support your posture and help you avoid a cranky back.

“Since I’m cost conscious, I tend to look for mesh chairs, which allow air flow and extend the life of the chair,” McGee says.

“You want adjustable arm rests that move forward and back, not just up and down. When you’re sitting in the chair, you want your elbows at about a 90-degree angle so you are not reaching.”

Lumbar back support is important. The chair should have an adjustment to accommodate the lower back, and should be at a height that allows your feet to rest on the floor. “For those who aren’t as tall, put something under your feet so your legs aren’t dangling,” he says.

Think beyond the back

Vision. Surprise: Some back and neck strain may start with your vision. “The first thing I ask patients is when was the last time they got their eyes checked,” McGee says.

“An eye exam might be one of the visits we’ve canceled or postponed because of the COVID pandemic. But working at home with laptops and smaller screens, we’re squinting and straining, putting stress on the neck and back as we try to see.” He notes that enlarging the text on your screens can be a simple first step.

Core muscles support your back and neck. “When working with patients, physical therapists will try to get you to reengage muscles that are shut off when you’re in one position for an extended time,” McGee says. “Working on deep abdominal and glute muscles can help support your spine and prevent strain.”

Feet. For those who work at a standing desk, comfortable, supportive shoes are essential, since the stress of standing and walking will affect your entire spine.

Head. A more comfortable workday at home starts with a good night’s rest. If your pillow is too high or too low, it can put strain on your neck when you sleep, resulting in stiffness in your neck and shoulders and setting the stage for a painful day of working at home. Slowly shrugging your shoulders or applying heat can ease occasional discomfort, but you might need a new pillow if you keep waking up sore.

Although pillows have become very specialized (with price tags to match), McGee says any pillow that helps you sleep soundly and awaken well rested and pain-free is the right one for you.

Mindful Practices to Address Back and Neck Pain

How we think about the pain we’re experiencing matters — a lot. “When we’re stressed, our ability to deal with our aches and pains goes down; even trivial problems can become very difficult to deal with. We tend to dwell on the negativity around our physical discomfort and focus on things we can’t do rather than all the amazing things we can.

“In my clinical practice, I stole something from my friends in rehab psychology, and that’s the concept of mindfulness,” McGee says. “Some of the techniques they use include thinking about a relaxing place. For me, that’s by the water. I can close my eyes and think about a pleasant environment, and that can deemphasize thoughts about my aching body.”

“Pursed-lip breathing is another technique to help you feel calmer and more centered. You take slow breaths in through your nose, and then exhale gently through your mouth as if you’re blowing out a candle. A few repetitions can deescalate the thoughts we’re having about our pain and even lessen its impact,” he says.

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Physical therapy is available, in person or by telehealth

“At least a quarter of American adults have neck or back issues at some point during their lifetime,” McGee says. “The good news is that in the vast majority of cases, it’s going to resolve on its own within 30 days.”

McGee says it makes sense to check in regularly with a physical therapist just as you would with your primary care doctor — particularly if you’re in pain. “If you’re experiencing neck and back pain and are concerned about how your home work environment is affecting that, reach out to a professional near you.” He notes that Maryland is a direct access state, so the vast majority of insurance providers do not require a physician’s referral.

“Physical therapy clinics can help you schedule in-person visits, and some are offering telehealth consultations as well. Physical therapists are happy to see you and help you to manage the aches and pains you experience.”

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