For many nonessential workers, the one-year anniversary of the Covid pandemic next week also marks about a year of working from home — and coping with the bodily aches and pains that come with it.
The pandemic has led to an increase in common, musculoskeletal back and neck pain for a variety of reasons beyond just our desk setups, Eric Robertson, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, tells CNBC Make It.
For starters, people are missing out on physical activity that they'd normally get from their commute or routine, Robertson says. "Unless people are intentionally replacing their overall activity level and keeping up their exercise, everyone is moving a little bit less than they were," he says. Research has shown that dramatic decreases in activity leads to increases in musculoskeletal pain, such as neck, shoulder and low back pain.
Psychological stress is often linked to back and neck pain, Roberston says. "Things like depression and anxiety, and fear about work can all translate to very strong predictors of who has back pain," he says. Most people have been living with higher levels of persistent stress and anxiety due to the pandemic.
Of course, our creative, less-than-ergonomic WFH desks are partially to blame for muscle aches and pains. While you might be able to tolerate a day of working from the couch or sitting on an uncomfortable kitchen chair, in the long run, these habits can have a negative impact on your body and health.
Here's how to relieve back and neck pain if you're working remotely during the pandemic:
It sounds counterintuitive if your back is stiff and aching, but "by far the most important thing to do when you have back pain is to continue your daily activities and to move more," Robertson says. You might be worried that movement will only increase the pain, but that's not the case. Studies suggest that getting regular exercise can reduce the frequency of recurring back pain attacks by almost half.
Exercising your cardiovascular system decreases stiffness and increases blood flow, which is great for your overall health and your back. "Frequent, small walks are phenomenal," Robertson says. Research suggests that brisk daily walks can reduce the risk of neck pain by 14%. Get in the habit of walking 100 yards down the street when you notice your back hurting, using the stairs instead of the elevator or taking phone calls while you walk.
If you're sitting all day, there are predictable muscles that get weak and tight, such as your hip flexors and your hamstrings and the muscles that stabilize your neck, Robertson says. Using a foam roller or small rubber ball on your glutes and hips can relieve tightness in your back. (This recent research paper includes diagrams of self-massage techniques and stretches that target your back. Or this YouTube video demonstrates how to foam roll for your lower back.)
Strengthening your abdominals and back muscles can also assist your back. Research has shown that doing three exercises, called "the McGill three" after the researcher who developed them, can reduce lower back pain. Here's how to do them, according to the American Council on Exercise:
Curl-up: Begin lying on your back with one leg bent and foot flat on the floor. Place your hands underneath your lower back. Lift your head, neck and shoulders off the floor and hold for 10 seconds. Switch legs and repeat on the other side.
Side bridge: Lie on one side, with your forearm on the floor, legs bent at 90-degree angles. Lift your hips up so your body forms a straight diagonal line from the crown of your head to your knees. Hold for 10 seconds; repeat on the other side.
Bird-dog: Start on all fours, with your hands flat on the floor underneath your shoulders. At the same time, raise your right arm and lift your left leg so they're parallel to the floor. Hold for 10 seconds; repeat on the opposite side.
Other studies have shown that workouts that focus on abdominal strengthening, such as Pilates, can prove beneficial for people with back pain.
Whether you have a dedicated home office or are making do with what you have at home, it's important to switch up your position and posture often, Robertson says. For example, you might start your day sitting at the kitchen table, and then transition to standing when you take video calls. Get creative if you don't have a standing desk; Robertson says he places his laptop on top of a blender so he can stand with the computer at eye-level during meetings.
Making time to relax doesn't only help your mental health, it also can help your back. A 2016 study found that mindfulness-based stress reduction activities, such as meditation or yoga, were as effective at reducing chronic back pain as taking pain medications.