Telework Injury Pandemic: How to Relieve Them

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What at first was mild discomfort turned into pain. They speak of overuse injuries that affect children to adults.

Elizabeth Cuthrell, a Manhattan film producer, worked in an ergonomic office space: comfortable desk chair, eye-level monitor, external keyboard. But the Covid-19 pandemic arrived. During her stay at home, she would work on a laptop, sitting in a wicker chair, or sometimes in an armchair with “fluffy pillows like marshmallows.” A month later, she began to feel pain in her neck, wrist, and shoulders. She had to consult with a chiropractor.

“It’s hard to quantify, but this has been a very, very big problem for many of my patients,” said Karen Erickson, the chiropractor who treated Cuthrell. Chiropractors report a increased injury and discomfort derived from the home office, as millions of workers have spent months working from sofas and beds, and on uncomfortable kitchen counters. Out the ergonomics, in the stoop over laptops.

According to an April survey on Facebook by the American Chiropractic Association, 92% of chiropractors (out of 213 respondents) said that patients report more neck pain, back pain, or other muscle and bone problems since the beginning work at home.

Typical pattern: In March, people thought they would work from home for only a couple of weeks, so it wasn’t a problem to work from the couch. Or maybe your spouse or roommate, who also worked from home, claimed the only usable desk.

At first they only felt mild discomfort. Then gradually the pain got worse. This is most commonly a “overuse injury” It comes from repetitive trauma, said Michael Fredericson, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University, adding: “It’s like when a tire blows out. It wasn’t necessarily an accident; the tread did wear out over time.”

Although some offices reopened, for many people, what they thought was a temporary work-from-home arrangement became the norm.

Laptops are the big culprits. They force you to look down to see the screen, or (if raised) to raise your hands to write. Both options are bad. Chronic downward gazing, Erickson said, puts us in a “forward head position” that puts pressure on the discs and joints in the spine, as well as causing a muscle imbalance in the neck.

Then there is the chair. When we transform our kitchen stools or sofas into desk chairs, they are often one wrong height, which prevents us from sitting in what Nikki Weiner, an ergonomics consultant, calls a neutral posture, that is, “ears on shoulders, on hips”: hips slightly higher than the knees, arms relaxed at the sides, neck relaxed and straight, forearms parallel to the floor, feet flat on the floor.

Many of us have not only changed where we work; we have also changed the way we work. We no longer walk down the hall for a meeting, or cross the street for coffee, or even walk to the subway to go to work. Instead, we just sit.

“My workplace is in the bedroom. I get out of bed, and I’ll be honest, sometimes. I don’t even bother to shower, and then I literally move to the chair and sit there most of the day, “said Ryan Taylor, a New York-based software engineer who now has pain behind his shoulder.

“The body needs movement,” said Heidi Henson, an Oregon chiropractor, who, like the other chiropractors interviewed, said the inactivity caused by the pandemic caused injury and pain. “Even if you have perfect ergonomics, if you are in the same position for a long time, your body will not respond well“.

Increasing screen exposure time on our phones, like scrolling through Twitter, only increases idle time. “Cell phones are a big problem,” Erickson said, explaining that we tend to bend our necks to see our phones. Instead, he recommends holding the phone at eye level, resting the elbow on the body for support. Scott Bautch, president of the Occupational Health Council of the American Chiropractic Association, says that as screen time has increased dramatically, we are more at risk for “text neck” and “selfie elbow.”

College students, teens, and even younger children are also at risk. “Teens are already prone to spending a lot of screen time,” Henson said. “And later we have taken away everything that is good for them in terms of movement, sports are not there, gyms are not there. “She calls teenagers and college students “forgotten population”, from the perspective of health.

Erickson agrees, adding that college students are “absolutely at risk”, particularly from neck tension, shoulder pain, and headaches. Most high school to college students, Erickson said, “are doing their homework in bed, sitting like Linus at the piano, leaning over his laptop or cell phone for hours.” Thanks to increased screen time and inactivity, young children also report more headaches and discomfort. “It’s not normal for an 8-year-old to have neck pain,” Erickson said, but now he’s seeing it in his practice.

There is good news: solutions can be simple and cheap. For laptop users, the only purchase experts strongly recommend is an external keyboard and mouse, and the laptop sits on top of a stack of books, raising the monitor to eye level. If the chair is too high for your feet to rest comfortably on the floor, use a stool; if it is too low, raise it with pillows.

Two other important fixes are free: more breaks and more movement. Bautch suggests setting a timer every 15 to 30 minutes to remind yourself to move, and recommends three different types of breaks: frequent “microdescansos” of just five seconds, in which you change your posture in the opposite direction to which you had been (thus, for example, if you look down on the screen, you look at the ceiling for five seconds); then “macrorests” periodic three to five minutes, such as deep breathing or shoulder stretch; and finally, “the great training” of at least 30 minutes of exercise (ideally in one session), either on the bike or on the elliptical.

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