3 ways to prevent work-from-home back pain

As you read this, you may find yourself in a similar position to millions of other Americans: working from home with a less than ideal work-from-home set-up. Whether you’re Zooming at the kitchen counter, typing on the couch, or getting down to kid-level for homeschooling, you may find yourself dealing with an additional challenge: managing the back pain and headaches that come from poor ergonomics.

So what’s the key to preventing this kind of pain? David Anderson, physical therapist at the Coon Rapids, Minnesota Orthology clinic, is taking over the Orthology Blog this week to share the best way to optimize your work-from-home setup, without pouring a lot of money into it. Here’s his take on better ergonomic for less pain:

David AndersonLike many of you, I recently found myself working from home without any real plan of how to do so. Needing a consistent work setup, it was time to haul my wife’s old college desk and chair out of the basement and into a room upstairs. Turns out, physical therapists don’t do much desk work, so a home office was never a priority for me. Although I educate patients on a daily basis on proper ergonomic set up, the old adage “do as I say, not as I do” came to full fruition.

The old desk and chair were taking their toll, and it did not take long before I started having a backache and sore neck. Given the unknown length of time I’d be working from home, I knew I needed to take action.

First order of business: desk and monitor height.

I sent a picture of myself sitting at my initial setup to an old physical therapy classmate of mine. Her response? “Oh my gosh! Your neck!” It wasn’t until I actually looked at the picture that I realized how bad my setup was.

To get an idea of what your posture looks like, have someone take a picture of you at your workstation or set up your phone to take a video, so you can get a good look. It really is amazing what a good visual of your setup will reveal. Here’s a look at what a good setup should look like:

Ideally, the top of your monitor should be at eye level. This is a challenge for those working on a laptop, as we also want our elbows at our sides, bent between 90 and 100 degrees. In order to correct this, it’s time to drag out the old textbooks—not for reading, but for stacking.

Again, I returned to my basement to pull out two tubs full of old physical therapy school three-ring binders and textbooks, and put them to use. Obviously any big books will do, but it was a relief to see these three-ring binders still had some use. Here’s how to use them:

  • Place large books under the desk legs to raise the height of the desk and monitor. It will depend on the size of your books, but one large book for each of my desk legs worked well for me. You can also use bricks, wood, or really anything sturdy and flat. 
  • Place additional books as needed under the laptop or monitor to raise the top of your monitor to eye level. I have five large books under mine. It looks intense, but really is needed to get the monitor to the right level. You can also purchase a laptop stand specifically designed to accomplish this.
  • If you can, add an external keyboard to preserve the level of your hands and arms, as shown in the image below. Maintain the 90 to 100 degrees of elbow bend, and try to prevent reaching forward. While writing this post, I remembered I had an old computer I wasn’t using, and that I could hook up the mouse and keyboard from that computer to my elevated laptop. External keyboards can range from $20 to more than $150, depending on what you’re looking for. 

Second order of business: your chair.

Again, with no regular office setup, I settled for the old, cheap desk chair. I could definitely use an upgrade here, but for the time being I have made some adjustments to the current one.

Evidence shows proper lumbar, or back, support improves comfort in healthy individuals and those dealing with low back pain. To provide this support for yourself, try this:

  • Roll up a towel or use a pillow placed behind your lower back to increase support and reduce strain.
  • Follow the Rules of 90s: Your feet should be flat on the floor with your knees, hips and trunk all around 90 degrees in relation to each other. Your back should be in a neutral position—not too arched or slouched.

Third order of business: keep moving.

It is recommended that we all take frequent breaks from sitting. Take a short break every 30 minutes or so… which reminds me, I have not stood up for a while. Excuse me while I take my standing stretch break! If you can’t remember the last time you stood up, now is a good time for you to take a standing break as well.

Sitting increases pressure on the low back, so these breaks and movement are important in maintaining a healthy spine. Motion is lotion! If you have a standing desk, or just a place to stand such as a high kitchen counter, this is a good way to vary your routine. I happen to be set up in a spare bedroom with a dresser, and I can place my laptop on that dresser for a standing meeting. It’s not ideal, but varying tasks can help reduce repetitive stress and strain.

Having just made these changes today, many of them while writing this article, I can already feel the effects of reduced strain on my back and neck. As we find ourselves adjusting to a new normal for the foreseeable future, it is important to make these adjustments now, so you aren’t left paying for it in the long run with back and neck pain. Small adjustments now can make a significant difference down the road.