Be Well: Fixing Your Work From Home Slump
As a relatively tall kid, my mother was always telling me to stand up straight. Unfortunately, I still slouch in adulthood, and working from home this last year hasn’t helped either—with no one but my cat and roommate around to judge.
The result is painful—literally. Lately, Dr. Amy Horton, a chiropractor at Northwestern Health Sciences University Bloomington Clinic, has been working on neck pain and lower back pain related to prolonged sitting. It seems like pandemic posture is rather widespread.
“Posture-wise, we all want to get into our work, and I think the longer we sit, the more we start to curl forward,” Horton says. “And rounded posture is not healthy for the spine.”
What you, your joints, and your muscles really don’t want is for that pain to become a severe problem, Horton says. Taking care of yourself and your sitting techniques now can save you pain and many Advils later.
What is good and bad posture anyways?
Horton says good posture is aligned—so hips, shoulders, head, and ears are stacked in an upright form creating a neutral spine. And leg crossing? That’s a no-go, as you want to have your weight evenly distributed across your sit bones. Plus, that twists your pelvis, forcing your spine to compensate.
“If we’re too far forward, we’re putting a lot more pressure on the discs. And if we’re too far extended there’s more pressure on the joints—rather than letting all of those parts of the spine take some of the load,” Horton says.
Ideal sitting posture is comfortable, she adds. Each body is different, so there’s some nuance involved.
“If you can sit and get through a day without a lot of neck or back pain, you’re probably pretty close,” Horton says. But if you’re getting distracted by pain, that’s a bad sign.
Bad posture looks like a “C” shape, the doctor says. As your head and arms go forward, your back curves into that signature hunch. Or, as you slide further down your chair, your pelvis thrusts forward like Elvis and your neck curves all wonky.
Your head is also a big deal, weighing about 10-11 pounds normally, Horton says. But increasing the angle of your head by letting it slip forward makes it feel significantly heavier.
“It’s a huge impact to the joints and the structures,” Horton says. “And what we see over time is actually more wear and tear—degenerative change—at the lower part of the neck.”
Over time, that degenerative wear can appear similarly to whiplash injuries from a car accident, she says.
The good news? Interventions to correct posture can be simple and easy.
You’re not alone in your pain, Horton says, and there’s lots of help out there. Just don’t wait until it gets too bad!
“For me, it’s just another day in the office—dealing with other people’s office problems,” Horton says.
Home Office Ergonomics
- “Make sure the home set-up is as ergonomically correct as possible,” Horton says. Prop up your computer on books so it’s eye-level and you’re not looking down constantly. (My old textbooks are finally doing something other than collecting dust.) Ideally, your eyes are aligned to the upper third of the monitor and your keyboard is lower to keep your shoulders relaxed.
- Put a pillow behind your back, or get a special wedge cushion to add lumbar support. This makes it more comfortable to have your default be an aligned back. “None of us can hold that perfect posture for 8-10 hours a day,” Horton says. But a comfortable chair, cushions, and a footrest (preferably slanted) helps take the pressure off the hips and lower back.
- Use sticky notes or alarms to remind yourself to stop slumping. “As we stop thinking about it, the curl starts,” Horton says. Alarms each hour can also act as a reminder for other wellness activities, like drinking water and unclenching your jaw.
- Use a sit-stand desk to stop sitting so much. You can treat yourself to the real thing, use more of those old books, or simply transition to a higher surface like your kitchen counter. The rotation can be sitting one hour, standing the next, or sitting one day, and standing the next, Horton says.
Stretch it Out
- For the neck and upper back, try the Bruegger’s Relief Position. While sitting, pull the back and torso up tall. Then straighten arms moving them slightly away from the body with your palms facing forward, then extend your arms to your back.
- Similarly, you can try the “W” and “Y” positions. It’s the same baseline position, but you can do it sitting or standing. The arms are up, palms facing forward, as you create that Y or W shape.
- Lunge into pain relief by striking a classic yogic warrior pose. You could practice some gentle yoga focused on those standing poses, or simply lunge your way to the kitchen for a snack and hip flexor stretching. Horton says to focus on maintaining that hip to ear alignment while doing this.
- Walking is a simple way to alleviate some tension. Take a break for some fresh air, or if you’re strapped to the screen because of another Zoom meeting, try marching in place. Or just straighten one leg at a time while sitting. “Sitting actually puts more load and more weight on the discs than standing and walking,” Horton says.
- Try gently stretching your neck from side to side. Horton recommends NOT pulling your head, but instead leaning your head on your hand as you move towards each side. This will help you avoid injury.
- Give your shoulders a break by activating your rhomboid muscles to give your traps a break. Do this by squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling them down toward your back pockets. Be sure to relax your arms while doing this, Horton says.
- To provide some release for your lower back, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet wider than the hips. Then gently let the knees knock and lean together without pushing, pulling, or straining.