Working and studying from home can take a toll on our bodies. Hunching over our laptops, sitting in the same spot for hours, staring at our screens or making do with a less-than-ideal setup can all contribute to neck and back pain.
Here are 4 tips from our physical therapists at Medical Services to help you reduce aches and pain, or help you avoid them altogether.
#1 Avoid sitting for long periods
Sitting for long periods of time is associated with negative health effects. The Physical Therapy and Integrative Care team at Medical Services recommend moving throughout the day and avoiding sitting for more than 2 hours at a time.
Make a healthy habit of getting up and moving around for at least an hour or two during the day. You can do this by breaking up your time into short breaks. For instance, if you’ve been sitting at your desk for an hour, take a 15 minute break to stretch, walk around or do simple exercises. The Rec Center has a playlist of pre-recorded stretching exercises you can do to break up your schedule and help you ease tension.
You can also work movement into your daily activities by going for a walk while you talk on the phone, taking the stairs instead of the elevator if possible or using an exercise ball instead of a normal desk chair.
#2 Practice deep breathing
Pain and stress are located in similar areas in the brain. Working to decrease your stress can also help decrease your pain.
Dr. Annie Sirotniak, DPT, a physical therapist at Medical Service advises that “deep breathing exercises can help calm our nervous system down from ‘fight-flight-or-freeze’ mode into a more relaxed ‘rest and digest’ state”. To get started with deep breathing, find a place where you’re comfortable and take a few minutes to focus your attention on breathing slowly and deeply. Try to breathe in from your nose on a count of 3, pause briefly, then exhale on a count of 4.
As you continue to breathe deeply, notice how your body shifts. Are your shoulders more relaxed? Has the tension subsided? Continue to practice breathing until you notice your body move into a more relaxed state.
#3 Support your lower back when you sit
Supporting your lower back (lumbar) can help alleviate pain associated with sitting for long periods at home or school. Dr. Winter Ball, DPT, teaches his patients to “place a small rolled up blanket or towel between your lower back and the chair backrest”.
Another method he recommends is to place a towel roll under your tailbone. This will tilt the top of your pelvis towards your thighs and allow the back to relax in a comfortable position. This position can also help soothe your shoulders and neck when working at a computer.
#4 Tweak your setup
Whether you sit at a desk, on the couch or in bed to work or study, there are ways to make your setup more comfortable and ergonomic. If you use a laptop, try propping it up so that the screen is at eye level. If your screen is too high or too low, it can impact your posture and lead to neck or back pain, especially after long periods of time.
If possible, it can also be helpful to use a separate keyboard and mouse so that your shoulders, elbows and wrists can work in a comfortable position. If this isn’t possible, experiment with where you work and what is most comfortable. For instance, if you typically work at the coffee table, try moving your workstation to a different table, desk or counter. You may notice that you can work more comfortably on different surfaces.
When it’s finally time to sign off of Zoom, many of us escape to our phones, which may be causing additional neck or back pain. To avoid this, try to hold your phone up to eye level more frequently instead of peering down at it. This can help lessen irritation in your neck.
If you are experiencing prolonged or worsening pain or need help in tweaking your desk set up, it may be time to see a physical therapist. Medical Services offers physical therapy appointments to students in person and virtually through telehealth. Learn more about physical therapy services.