We Ask a Physical Therapist: How Can I Prevent Back Pain While Working from Home?
We don’t know about you, but after several hours of sitting hunched over our laptops (on the couch, on the bed, at the kitchen table and pretty much everywhere but an actual desk), our backs feel tight and achy. So we sent out an S.O.S. to Jaclyn Fulop, a board licensed physical therapist and founder of Exchange Physical Therapy Group in New Jersey, who is teaching us how to ease the pain and prevent it altogether.
Is it really so bad to work from my couch?
“An improper ergonomic setup can wreak havoc on the back,” warns Fulop. While initially comfortable, sitting on a couch is one of the worst offenders, as it causes the body to slouch forward. (Womp-womp.) “Over time, this forward head posture can lead to muscle imbalances, as the body tries to adapt and find ways to hold the head up. Some muscles become elongated and weakened, whereas other muscles become shorter and tighter, which can lead to neck pain, pinched nerves and poor posture.” (BRB, getting up from the couch.)
OK, where is the best place for me to sit?
“When you’re working from home for a prolonged period of time, you want to invest in a proper office chair with adjustable features such as a back rest, arm rests and lumbar support to prevent neck, upper back and low back discomfort,” Fulop says. “If that’s not an option, a dining room chair is the next best seat in the house, as it provides the most back-friendly position.”
“No matter where you sit, keep your back straight and scoot all the way back in your chair, with a backrest positioned comfortably on your lower back to allow the upper body to be properly supported.” You can purchase a backrest to attach to your chair or you can add a rolled towel or seat cushion between your low back and the chair for added lumbar support.
Shop chairs: Best Office Ergonomic Computer Office Midback Chair ($65); Sihoo Ergonomic Office Chair ($300); Ergohuman High Back Swivel Chair ($700)
Any other tips for setting up my work station?
“Your computer screen should be placed about 20 inches in front of you at arms’ length and the top of the computer screen should be at eye level,” Fulop tells us. You might have to lower your chair or stack some books under your computer to raise it on the table in front of you. “Keep your hips and knees positioned at 90 degrees with your thighs parallel to the floor and your feet flat on the floor as well.”
What else can I do to keep my back healthy?
“Even with the perfect ergonomic chair setup, it’s important to modify your sitting position from time to time to allow blood flow to evenly reach all parts of your body. I always tell my patients that they should adjust their position every 20 minutes.”
During those breaks, here are three stretches you can do to release any tension.
1. Upper Trapezius Stretch
This stretch will help to relieve any tightness in the upper back, arms, and neck. “Sit up straight in a chair with your head and neck in a neutral position, ears in line with the shoulders, and hold the edge of your chair with your right hand,” says Fulop. “Tuck your chin in slightly, grab the right side of your head with your left hand, and gently pull your head to the left while looking straight ahead. Use gentle pressure to increase the stretch, but don’t force your head into position.” Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then return your head and neck to a neutral position. Do two repetitions on each side.
2. Doorway Pectoral Stretch
This stretch will open up the front of your body and help increase the range of motion in the shoulders while releasing any tension in your upper back. “To start, stand in an open doorway, and raise each arm up to the side, bent at 90-degree angles with palms resting on the door frame,” Fulop explains. “Standing upright, slowly step forward with one foot. Don’t allow your body to lean forward. You should feel the stretch in your shoulders and chest. Hold for 30 seconds, then step back and relax. Repeat three times.”
3. Hip Flexor Stretch
This stretch will help loosen up tight hips caused by sitting on the couch or with your legs crossed. “From a kneeling lunge, press your hands into your front thigh and let your pelvic floor sink downward while engaging the glutes of your rear leg,” says Fulop. “Hold for five long, deep breaths, using exhalations to try and sink closer to the floor. Repeat on the other side.”