Battling The Posture Pandemic
A physical therapist tells how to make sure working from home — or in a car, or on your feet — doesn't become a pain in the neck.
Working remotely has paid off for many at-home employees since the pandemic began more than two years ago. They’ve brought office life— daily tasks, computers, paper files—into their houses or apartments and adjusted accordingly. But for some, WFH life has been a literal pain.
One thing left behind when offices closed was the ergonomic setup meant to promote good posture and keep ailments such as back pain at bay. At home, countless folks are obliged to sit on hard, flat seats at surfaces elevated to inappropriate heights. Hunching over a laptop while sitting on a couch, for example, can cause back and neck pain, according to the Yale School of Medicine.
“Every once in a while, we have patients say that their desk at home isn’t an ideal height,” notes James Phillips, a physical therapist at Bergen P.T. Associates in Elmwood Park. A workstation that’s improperly set up can result in bad posture, which is a main cause of back strain and headaches, he says.
But it’s not just office workers who deal with these types of pain. People who drive for a living or are on their feet for prolonged periods can suffer as well. Phillips offers the following tips for making sure today’s bad posture doesn’t become tomorrow’s discomfort:
Pain at the desk. One of the most common “bad habits” that according to Phillips leads to pain is “forward head posture,” in which people lean forward to see their computer screens. This leads to neck strain and cervicogenic headaches (those originating from the neck). “People may think they’re having a migraine, but often the pain comes from the neck,” Phillips says.
Solution: An easy exercise one can do is sit tall at the desk and tuck in one’s chin, he says. Doing this will straighten the back and stretch muscles in the neck. “And don’t sit at your desk for too long,” Phillips adds. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says to get up every half hour, but I suggest setting a timer and standing every 20 minutes. You want to get up before any pain starts to set in.” Desk chairs should be fully adjustable and have ample back support, while the top of a desk monitor should be positioned slightly below eye level.
Pain on the road. Back pain caused by long periods behind the wheel of a car is becoming more prevalent as people drive for services like Uber and DoorDash. The motion of a vehicle combined with a seated position produces whole-body vibrations that can lead to discomfort and lower back pain, according to the Spine Institute of North America. And because a driver’s feet are active when driving, they’re unable to stabilize the body as they do when seated at a desk.
Solution: The same chin tuck exercise advised for desk workers can also help drivers reduce neck strain. For those unable to stop and get out of their vehicles, Phillips suggests installing an extra back cushion for the seat. “They are worth the small investment; the right one offers the back plenty of support and will help you maintain good posture,” he says, explaining: “One of the best things to have is lumbar support in the car seat.”
Pain on your feet. While getting up frequently from a seated position is recommended for office workers, extended hours on your feet can lead to lower back pain as well as muscle and tissue stress in the legs, Phillips notes. Work in retail and food service, for instance, often requires constant walking with few breaks to sit.
Solution: “There is some connection between being on your feet for a long time and back pain,” he says. Physical therapists and podiatrists agree that wearing appropriate footwear for any job is imperative, particularly shoes with shock-absorbing soles for restaurant employees, he says. “If you’re in a confined space, as in a barber or hairdresser’s workplace, try to install padded floor mats or rubberized mats to soften the floor.”