Back pain is one of the most common issues people have to deal with on a daily basis. For many, it’s simply a nuisance that can be alleviated with over-the-counter medication.
But for others, back pain can be debilitating, making it difficult to work and enjoy life. If you’re suffering from back pain, there are a few things you can do to find relief.
81% of people who work remotely suffer from some form of back, neck or shoulder pain, according to a survey conducted by Opinium for the charity Versus Arthritis.
Try these 5 ways to avoid back pain when you work
Nearly half (48%) said they were less physically active than before the lockdowns.
Another survey by the Institute for Employment Studies indicates that 35% say they have new back pain when working from home.
Physical therapists and other back pain experts say those with severe or persistent problems should seek professional help, but there are things many of us can do to help ourselves.
1. Don’t sit for a long time
Almost all experts agree that one of the best things you can do is move. Don’t sit in the same position for a long time.
“Make sure you take advantage of any opportunity you get to move your body,” says Ashley James of the Association of Chartered Physical Therapists.
“It doesn’t have to be about exercise as such,” she continues. “It’s about incorporating movement into your day.”
She calls it “taking a snack of periodic movements.”
This might mean answering phone calls or participating in online meetings standing up, stretching, or going up and down the stairs when it’s not really necessary, she explains.
When you move, different muscle groups share the job of keeping your head, neck, back, and the rest of your body in alignment, rather than continually overloading the same muscles.
Where lockdowns have restricted outdoor exercise to once a day, the James’s advice is to take advantage of that daily opportunity to at least take a brisk walk whenever you can.
Movement can help you breathe by opening up your chest and reducing muscle atrophy.
It increases blood flow and lubricates synovial joints – those that allow free movement – such as the hips and shoulders.
2. Set an alarm
Creating a new routine that helps you keep moving can be difficult, so experts suggest setting a timer on your phone or computer to remind you to move.
It’s a good way to avoid being stuck in the same position hour after hour, says cervical specialist Chris Worsfold.
“We’ve evolved to move,” he says. “By nature, we want to move after 20 or 30 minutes, so that’s when you have to go do it.”
If you’re sitting when it rings, stand up. If you’re up, do a stretch or walk up and down the stairs.
“The key is to create a routine that works for you,” says Leanne Antoine, who treats patients in Hertfordshire, England.
“There’s no point in creating a schedule that feels like a failure when you don’t stick to it.”
So ask yourself honestly what you would be willing to do and stick to the plan. The important thing is that it makes you get out of your chair, stretch, walk or Zumba in your living room, he advises.
3. Organize your work space
“You don’t have to have a perfect setup with a $1,000 chair, but if you’re cornered on the couch, it’s not going to be good for your back,” explains Chris Martey.
It’s worth giving your workspace serious thought, but companies have a vested interest in selling expensive equipment, so watch out for unnecessary spending, he cautions.
Leanne Antoine agrees: “Make small adjustments that won’t break the bank.”
That can be as simple as using a cushion to raise yourself up in the chair, or to support your lower back.
An inexpensive adjustable office chair can help.
A computer stand will raise your screen to eye level so you’re not always looking down, especially on long video calls. An external keyboard is also useful.
“Talk to your company,” says Antoine. Many will provide this equipment to their staff.
If you have to use a sofa, at least make sure your feet are flat on the floor and that you sit with a cushion to support your lower back.
Standing desks can be helpful, says Chris Martey. But you have to alternate between standing and sitting, and take regular breaks from the screen.
If you don’t have a standing desk, some experts recommend substituting it by placing your computer on an ironing board for short periods.
4. Sleep better
We’re in a “perfect storm” for back problems, according to Ashley James. It’s impossible to quantify, but much of back pain is caused by anxiety, she says.
In his jargon, back problems are “biopsychosocial”.
People shake off stress with all sorts of methods, of course. Pilates and yoga are helpful for some.
One of the best ways is to work on getting better sleep, James says. The key is “sleep hygiene.”
This means cutting back on caffeine in the afternoon and evening, maintaining a consistent nighttime routine, and trying to wake up at the same time every day.
The British health service advises against the use of electronic devices an hour before bedtime, as the light from the screen can make it difficult to sleep.
Light suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that helps you fall asleep.
Numerous studies suggest that blue light is the most powerful, but some research suggests that the warmer colors used in the “night mode” of many devices may have a greater impact.
5. Desk exercises
The Association of Chartered Physiotherapists has designed some simple stretches that, if done regularly, can help prevent aches and pains.
Some are represented in the illustration that precedes these lines and others can be found on their website
They are designed for people who telecommute and remain seated for long periods.
Stretching and mobilizing the chest, legs and back helps the different muscle groups. Although they affirm that there is no “perfect posture” and that the priority is to keep moving.
There is a positive message here, says Chris Martey. For the millions of people who suffer from daily pain: “You can take control. You can self-manage. You don’t have to be dependent”