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Avoiding Pain While Working and Learning Virtually

Most of us are living in a new reality due to the coronavirus pandemic. Working and attending school remotely are the new norm, at least for the foreseeable future. For many people that means working from their couch or bed, crouched over a computer screen or phone. But continuing to work like this can lead to back, neck and wrist pain.

To learn more about setting up an ideal workspace, we spoke with Elizabeth Carter, an occupational therapist at Abington – Jefferson Health.

An Ergonomic Space

Those working and learning from home may not have the space for a private office, especially if they are living with multiple people. But Carter says, “Ideally it would be great if we all had an office desk and chair. If that isn’t a realistic goal for your household, try to at least work from a table instead of sitting on your couch with your laptop on your coffee table.”

If you’re setting up a workstation in your home, try to find a table that’s desktop height and a chair that allows your feet to rest on the floor. Your chair should have a high back. If you don’t have access to an office chair, add a cushion and a rolled-up towel or lumbar pillow to any chair to support the natural curve of your low back.

You should also pay attention to the height of your screen when you’re sitting at your desk or workspace. “You should always be looking straight at your screen, not up or down at it, in order to maintain proper alignment and avoid neck pain,” Carter advises.

To mitigate wrist and shoulder pain, be sure your forearms are resting parallel to the floor when you’re typing and your wrists are in line with your elbows. “It’s important to avoid putting pressure on your wrists while you’re working at your desk. This constant strain can cause pain and inflammation,” says Carter. You may need to add cushions to your chair to get your wrists in line with your elbows.

Take Micro-Breaks

Without the ritual of coffee breaks, lunch outings and in-person meetings or classes, it’s easy to remain in front of the computer for prolonged periods of time. But even with the most ergonomic workspace, it can be harmful to stay in the same sitting position all day. Carter says, “You should aim to take a 30-second break for every 30 minutes that you’re working or studying from your computer.” A micro-break should include standing up, moving around and doing some stretches—such as chin tucks, shoulder shrugs, arm circles and hand stretches.

If you have the option to use a standing desk to work from or an exercise ball as a chair, both are great ways to stay active and aligned during your work or school day. It’s not ideal to stand all day, so using a standing desk is best when you can switch from sitting to standing multiple times throughout the day. Similarly, if you’d like to use a yoga ball in lieu of a traditional desk chair, it might be best to slowly integrate it into your work day to make sure that your body can tolerate it.

Pain Outside of the Work Day

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in patients coming in for neck, back, hand and wrist pain recently—mainly because so many people are working and learning from home. But even outside of work and school, we’re on our screens more than ever before because everything has gone virtual,” says Carter.

It is critical to pay attention to your posture and physical activity, not just during the work day, but also after hours whenever you’re on a device. Curling up on the couch looking at your phone for hours can also lead to neck and back pain, so be sure to plan micro-breaks into your downtime as well.

If you’re experiencing chronic pain that’s interfering with daily activities and everyday tasks, it’s time to reach out to your doctor. For more information about Physical Therapy Services at Abington – Jefferson Health, click here.

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