The past 2-years of intermittent lockdowns have significantly changed the work habits (and therefore physical habits) of many people.
As a physiotherapist, I have seen an enormous up-tick in the number of people coming into our clinics for neck pain and back pain treatment over the past 2 years, largely due to working from home in poor postural positions. In fact, it has been so pronounced that I have named it ‘The posture pandemic’.
Whilst many organisations are now transitioning back to the office, it seems most people will continue to work from home in some capacity long-term.
Why does working from home create neck pain? There are a number of factors, but the most common include poor ergonomics (slouched over the kitchen table), reduced incidental exercise without a commute, longer desk-hours, higher stress levels and easy access to the kitchen which can result in snacking on inflammatory foods.
Let’s break each of these down and at the end I will offer some tips to mitigate the impact of them on your spine.
Let’s start with posture and ergonomics. The human body is designed to move regularly. It has only been in the past 100 years (on a human evolution timeline of around 200,000 years) that humans have even had the option to be sedentary. Prior to computers and cars, we were forced to move our bodies for the majority of the day in order to survive. Most of our grandparents grew up in a world where most jobs involved manual labour, walking was the main form of transport and computers didn’t exist. In short, the transition to extensive periods of sitting is a new phenomenon, and one that the human spine is not tolerating.
Whilst working in an office is still not ideal for your neck, many workplaces are set up with good chairs, standing work desks and the need to regularly walk to other areas of the office, such as meeting rooms or the water cooler for a chat. Contrast this to your home office, and many people are sitting on dining room chairs, engaged in back-to-back Zoom meeting marathons from a laptop, and working later into the night. This is putting enormous amounts of strain through the neck, creating tightness, weak muscles and resulting in pain.
Many people don’t make the connection between stress and neck pain, but they are actually closely linked. When you become stressed, your breathing pattern changes and you begin to breathe with your upper-chest, taking faster and shallower breaths. This results in reduced oxygen to your body, so your neck muscles try to help out by contracting in order to expand your ribcage and increase your oxygen intake. This creates tight and fatigued neck muscles and often results in pain.
The second influence of stress on your neck is related to pain perception. When you become stressed, your body is preparing for danger (you may have heard of the fight or flight response). Your brain and nervous system try to protect you from this perceived threat (regardless of whether the threat is real or imagined) by making you hypervigilant and more perceptive to pain. Even relatively minor injuries can feel excruciatingly painful when your body is in a stressed state.
Another important, but often overlooked, factor involved in pain is your diet. The amount of inflammation in your body plays a major role in whether or not you experience chronic pain. Inflammation is a response from your immune system and given that 80% of your immune system resides in your gut, the foods you eat will determine the amount of inflammation in your body. Sugar, alcohol and simple carbohydrates (such as white bread, pasta and biscuits) can all have an inflammatory response in your gut and increase the inflammation in your whole body. I have seen many clients overcome neck pain by changing nothing more than their diet! Unfortunately, the fridge and pantry are much more accessible from the home office, so inflammatory foods can be harder to avoid.
What’s the solution?
- Aim for a 50/50 ratio of sitting to standing whilst working. This can be achieved with an Omnidesk.
- Perform some daily NECKsercise (see postural neck exercise videos at bottom of the linked page)
- Walk during all phone calls (unless you need your computer, in which case you can perform mini squats)
- Take regular breaks to move, stretch and exercise throughout the day
- Manage your stress levels through exercise, meditation and deep breathing
- Remove inflammatory foods from your home! Willpower is no match for the pleasure chemicals your brain releases when you eat junk food, so don’t tempt the devil
- Ensure your pillow and mattress support your neck at night
- Get a postural assessment and individualised strength program from one of the Advanz Health physiotherapists
For a deeper dive on overcoming neck pain, grab a copy of my book, NECK PAIN SUCKS: The 5-Step method to solving your neck pain. (https://www.neckspert.com.au/the-book/)
Caelum Trott, The Neckspert.