Local physical therapist: Neck, back problems arise from working at home

Listen to the interview here.

We’re all concerned with protecting ourselves from the coronavirus … but the irony is, we could be doing terrible damage to our health because of the way we’re social distancing.

Dr. Aysha Morgan, a physical therapist at Pacific Medical Center in Bothell, has been seeing a large uptick in back, neck, and shoulder issues over the last several months. The common thread? Nearly all of the patients work from home.

Morgan said there are two main problems people make when they work from home. One is not using the right kind of furniture to support their bodies, in the way that swivel chairs and desks at the office are designed to do. Without armrests or back cushioning, people sit hunched over in their DIY home office for eight or more hours a day, putting stress on their arms, shoulders, necks, and backs.

“They don’t have a chair that supports their lower back, their screen is not necessarily at the correct height, and they don’t think about it … you start to get a strain on your neck, your shoulders start to hurt,” Morgan said.

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Even worse, she sees a lot of people who work not at a table or desk, but on the sofa or a bed. They make the mistake of thinking that because working while propped up against pillows and cushions is comfortable, it’s good for their bodies. But Morgan says this is similar to eating chocolate — pleasurable in the moment, but bad in the long run.

“It does feel good when you’re in there, but you are literally not actively contracting any of your postural fibers, so that in itself is leading to deconditioning, believe it or not,” she said. “You are actually getting unfit.”

Sitting in a chair, your torso’s muscles still have to work to keep you upright, she said. But lying in a bed, you don’t have any of that. When people who lie in bed due to illness, their muscles start to atrophy. In fact, according to one study Morgan read, people lose 2% of their overall fitness level each day that they spend lying in bed.

The other main problem is a lack of regular movement. People are not getting up for the kind of breaks that would happen naturally at the office — going over to a colleague’s desk, running out to the car to get something, or taking a quick walk around the block.

“People used to have to walk to the bus stop to go to work, walk around the office, go get some lunch,” Morgan said. But now, according to a study out of the U.K., “that energy expenditure is literally cut in half.”

People are also reporting to Morgan that with no clocking in and clocking out, they are working longer hours at home, putting their former commute time toward simply working more. Her solution is to instead use that commute time for exercise.

“Walk out your door and make a left. I want you to commute for 15 minutes, and then I want you to turn around and commute that 15 minutes back to your desk, and then you start working … You use that time that you had to sit in the car or be on the bus or whatever it was to get to your workplace, and you use it for physical activity,” she instructed.

The combination of working in the wrong position, and staying that way for eight, nine, or ten hours with no movement can create long-term problems for our bodies.

“It’s just too much strain on those postural muscles,” Morgan said. “Those fibers will weaken and will give you chronic tension headaches … even if you’re a fit person, our muscles weren’t meant to hold our bodies in a freeze frame for eight hours.”

Morgan recommends people frequently alter the way that they are sitting, and take breaks to move around for a few minutes. This change in position brings a change in the pressure, strain, and tension on your tissues. For example, standing at a counter for a little while while working can be a great way to get your muscles activated, she said.

“Right now the best position is the next position, so you should set a timer and change positions every 60 minutes,” she said.

She suggests that on break, people lean backwards over their counter as a way to counter-act the hunching over.

And if they can afford it, she wants people to invest in office furniture that will be supportive of the right areas.

“Make sure that your elbows and forearms are supported so that they’re not hanging at the side as you are typing, and forcing your upper back and your neck to constantly contract to hold them there,” she advised. “You don’t realize what the arms of your chair do to support you and why it’s important for them to be at a specific height — they keep the weight off of your shoulder girdle to allow your hands to type.”

Nearly all of Morgan’s patients say they have gained weight since the pandemic started — and the workday is not the only time that’s to blame. Morgan said her patients have reported opting out of hikes, bike rides, or jogs on the weekends because they have been scared to go out in public and potentially expose themselves to COVID-19.

“We lost last summer, because people didn’t want to go outdoors, they didn’t even want to walk past somebody,” she said.

She emphasized, however, that regular exercise is vital for not only keeping fit, but also helping with sleep, improving mental health during the stressful pandemic months, and boosting the immune system — a huge benefit when facing a dangerous virus. Exercise that is done in the open air can be done safely, she said.

“We realize now it’s really important to go outside and take a walk and keep your 6-feet distance and when you see a crowd, go around them,” she said.

Diabetes and heart disease are just some of the long-term problems brought on by lack of exercise. The problem with having one year of hunkering down inside, Morgan said, is that those 12 months can create lifelong bad habits that can result in these serious issues.

Morgan suggested people who have been exercising less than pre-COVID ask themselves, “How does my body feel after this one year of staying inside? Do I feel more lethargic? Is it hard for me to get the momentum to get out and do the things that I used to?”

If you answered yes, Morgan said, “That’s because your body has gotten into the habit of not moving. Your joints are different, your mobility and flexibility and muscle fibers are different. You’re going to have to take a leap and create that new habit of getting moving again.”