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Key Factors to Prevent Back Pain

Published March 2021

Working from home comes with its perks, but there are also some woes. For instance, if your work space is not ergonomic, it can wreak havoc on your body.

In fact, 92% of chiropractors report increased back pain among their patients since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people started to work from home.

Back pain, which ranges in severity and duration, can have a variety of causes. Back pain can be acute, with sudden and intense onset. Or it can be chronic, such as when an old injury or muscle strain continues to cause you pain for weeks or years. Severe back pain can limit your ability to move, and it can even decrease your quality of life.

Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group Chiropractor William D. Smith, DC, highlights four factors that could help lower your risk of back pain while working from home.

Factor One: Posture

When sitting at a desk, slouching forward towards your computer can harm your back. To avoid this impact, adjust your posture — starting from the ground up.

  • Spine: Stand up at your desk for part of each day. "The goal is to create more of an S-curve in the spine rather than a C-curve that occurs when sitting for long periods of time. A C-curve puts more pressure on the lower back and where your neck meets your shoulders," states Dr. Smith. If you do not have a standing desk, set up your workstation at a kitchen counter.
  • Feet: Make sure your feet touch the floor when you are seated. If they cannot reach the ground, use a shoe box or a step stool.
  • Back: Sit upright so you can feel the back of your chair on your spine.
  • Forearms: Do not rest your forearms on the arms of a chair. This can cause you to shrug your shoulders.
  • Head and neck: Your head should be about 18 to 20 inches from your computer screen. And, you should look at your screen from at an upright angle. Stack books under your computer to line your screen up with your head. This could prevent tech neck, a strain caused by looking down at technology.
  • Eyes: "When you get tired and stressed with eye strain, it is a common response to experience neck strain as patients shrug their shoulders and tug on their upper trapezius muscles," says Dr. Smith. Glare from a computer screen can cause eye strain. Get rid of the glare by moving your screen away from windows or closing the blinds.

Factor Two: Movement

"Being static in one posture for a long period of time is the culprit of many injuries and strains while working," explains Dr. Smith. "Every movement of your body incorporates the spine through the kinetic chain, so general movement of the body is helpful to the back in addition to specific back exercises."

Take movement breaks throughout the day.

  • Refill your water bottle.
  • Walk your dog.
  • Take visual breaks: Every hour, look at something other than your screen.
  • Use transitional movements: Do a mini squat sequence. Each time you stand up, sit and rise again five times.
  • Do push-ups: Use the surface you are working on, or even off of a wall.
  • Climb stairs: Walk an extra flight whenever you use the stairs.
  • Dance: Take a 30-second dance break a few times a day.
  • Breathe: Breathwork can ease stress in the trunk muscles and belly. Breathe in for five seconds, hold your breath for five seconds, and breathe out for five seconds. Repeat a few times.
  • Break a sweat: Stream an on-demand workout, such as Pilates or yoga.

Factor Three: Variety

Switch up where you work. "For short intervals throughout the day, you can sit on the floor with a laptop on your coffee table or work from the couch with pillows stacked on your lap beneath your laptop," suggests Dr. Smith. "It's actually better for your body to have variety than to sit in the same chair at the same desk all day long."

Factor Four: Diet

"What you eat can contribute to the environment you build for yourself: one that fosters or alleviates pain. This helps to explain why two people with the same injury or strain experience pain differently," Dr. Smith explains.

Consider these dietary tips:

  • Drink enough water: "Soft tissue thrives with hydration. It needs water in order to function properly," says Dr. Smith. He notes that tissues heal slower when they are not hydrated enough.
  • Eat anti-inflammatory foods: Following an anti-inflammatory diet may reduce swelling in the parts of your body that support your spine and back muscles. This can lower your chance of getting hurt.
  • Snack smart: When you are at home, the kitchen is always open. It can be tempting to snack on unhealthy foods and take in more sugar than normal. Meal prep to avoid mindless snacking.

If you are healing from a back injury or have chronic back pain, listen to your healthcare provider's advice. If you have had back surgery, follow your surgeon's recovery plan.