As telecommuting continues during the pandemic, some may experience discomfort or pain in their back, neck or legs because of their home office setup. A Baylor College of Medicine spine specialist offers expertise on how to maximize comfort and avoid pain while working from home.
“Most couches may not provide the same type of support and contour as an ergonomic office chair, so your back and neck may stay in a fixed, stressed position for a long period of time, creating strain on certain tissues that can then cause pain,” said Dr. Wyatt Kupperman, assistant professor of psychical medicine and rehabilitation at Baylor.
An ergonomic office chair is designed to support the curvatures of the spine. If you don’t have an office chair at home, Kupperman advises working from a desk, table or counter while seated in a chair. You can use household items such as a towel, pillow or paper towel roll to create lumbar support. It is best to sit on something that has both support and cushion, as hard surfaces can be uncomfortable for prolonged sitting. If you have difficulty sitting on some harder surfaces, sacral and ischial cutout cushions may provide support.
To maintain proper posture, sit in your desk chair all the way back to where your feet are flat on the floor or supported slightly in front of you. Your legs should not hang. Ideally, your knees should be flexed in front of the chair in a neutral position, your shoulders supported over your hips and arms at your sides – on arm rests if possible – comfortably at a 90- to 120-degree angle at the elbow. This is a fairly neutral position where you can avoid excess stress while sitting.
“In a general sense of mechanics at your desk, you want to be comfortable while you’re working. Sit-to-stand desks are popular because they allow you to transition your posture from sitting to standing, which can provide some benefit and alleviate prolonged time in one position,” Kupperman said.
Computer placement also is a crucial part of neck discomfort. Your outstretched arm provides a good measure of proper monitor placement. Looking down at your laptop screen can strain your shoulders and neck. If you can have the screen at eye level or slightly above eye level, you can look fairly straight with minimal motion and maintain a neutral neck position. If you continue to have back pain despite modifying your home office, consider discussing your symptoms with a medical provider. Consult with your employer for a formal ergonomic evaluation on your work-from-home setup.
“Generally, if people can maintain good posture through work with short breaks and an aerobic exercise program they can hopefully avoid poor posture and back pain,” Kupperman said. “If you’re not able to manage pain symptoms on your own with over-the-counter medications or measures such as stretching that you have previously taken to manage episodes, it’s reasonable to reach out to your primary care physician or specialists at the Baylor Medicine Spine Center to see if other medications or therapies are warranted to resolve the complaint.”