After nearly 7 months of millions of Americans working and schooling from home, massage therapists, physical therapists and chiropractors are all reporting a surge of injuries, musculoskeletal issues, and client complaints about shoulder, neck and back pain.
Although some businesses have re-opened their doors, for many people the work-from-home arrangement does not have an expiration date anytime soon. And with many schools and colleges opening remotely this fall, the problem is even more widespread.
PANDEMIC + EPIDEMIC
We were already as a society spending far too much time on devices. Then came March 2020 with a nationwide stay-at-home mandate and screen time literally became a required part of daily life. The candemic has exacerbated postural issues brought on by modern life, and our new normal comes with a list of negative side effects, ranging from blurry vision, sleep disorders and even cardiovascular disease; but what’s actually got the attention of medical experts is called “text neck epidemic”. In order to focus on a screen we hold our head forward, oftentimes slouching and tensing chest, back and facial muscles. The result is a real pain in the neck.
“Students and employees have always suffered from conditions related to poor work habits and stress,” explains Jessica Crow, graduate of the Massage Therapy program at Swedish Institute (’06), and founder of CNTRD Wellness. “But now that many of us are attending meetings and classes from home, we’re hunched over laptop Zoom sessions or pounding keys at improvised workspaces at kitchen tables or the couch.” This forward tilting loads pressure on the discs and joints of the spine, as well as causes muscle imbalance in the neck and shoulder girdle. Add in the fact that we are not working from desk chairs, but rather from soft surfaces such as sofas and beds which don’t provide good lumbar (lower back) support.
Not only have we changed where we work, we have also changed how we work. We no longer walk down the hall or up a flight of stairs for a meeting. We don’t even walk to the subway or the bus. We just sit. Add into the equation the fact that sports for our kids have been canceled, and gyms and yoga studios have been closed.
Increased screentime + inactivity = recipe for disaster.
THE GOOD NEWS
Luckily, evidence-based research shows that the negative health effects of excessive screen time can be relieved significantly by focusing on how you position yourself in front of the screen as well as taking breaks throughout the day to stretch, move and meditate.
Find a seated position that is upright and comfortable. Create an environment you can succeed in by supporting optimal alignment in your spine. A few simple adjustments and an emphasis on good posture will nurture your health and well-being.
“If you can work from a kitchen table, sit with your bottom as far back on the chair as you can,” explains Courtney Bauer, co-founder of the Swedish Institute 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training. “If your feet cannot comfortably rest on the floor, use a footstool or simple cushion under your feet. To support your lower back, roll up a towel or place a small cushion behind you. If you have to work from the sofa or bed, make sure that your knees are at a 90-degree vertical bend.”
Next, make sure your computer monitor is eye level or even a little higher. You can do this by placing your laptop on a stack of books to raise the height of the monitor. Gaze influences head and neck alignment. For example, looking down causes the head and neck to drop forward. In contrast, set your gaze high to elevate your head and neck (and possibly your mood!)
Try on this same idea when you use your cell phone. Instead of bending your neck to look down, hold your phone up to eye level, resting your elbows on a table or your body for support.
Even with the best ergonomics, it’s impossible to avoid forward head position in this current climate. Striving for perfect posture may only compound your stressors. Instead, acknowledge that excessive screen time takes a toll on the head and neck by stretching the surrounding muscles.
One muscle hit the hardest is the Trapezius — that big muscle on both sides of the neck and down the back, the one with all the knots, notorious for holding the stress and the weight of our head. Send a lot of love to your Trapezius. It hasn’t had a day off in months.
Try this 3-part neck stretch that Jessica recommends to both her personal and corporate clients.
Working from home or at your office desk all day? Attached to your smartphone? You may need to give your neck a little break! Try this 3-Part Stretch and wat…
Set a timer to remind yourself to get up and move. Try this quick 3 minute work/school from home workout that Courtney recommends setting a timer for 1x/hour to do right from your seat!
3-minute Seated Workout
- Oxygenate. Take a deep breath. Inhale; count to 8. Exhale; count to 10.
- Shimmy your sit bones. (Those bony protuberances insulated by the glutes. The ones you sit on). Laterally rock back and forth as fast as you can on them for 30 seconds. It’s likely you will laugh (added perk) and feel a surge of warm energy into your low back and spine.
- Mobilize your spine. Seated Cat/Cow. Place hands on your legs. Alternate between spinal flexion (Cat) and extension (Cow). Tuck tailbone under, flex spine, look at belly for Cat pose. Tilt tailbone, extend spine and look at ceiling for Cow pose. Repeat 8x
- Uplift. Lift and lower your arms as quickly as possible for 20 seconds. As you lift them, reach for the ceiling and as you lower them, try to touch the floor.
- Wring out tension. Contract and release the leg, back and shoulder muscles 10x.
And of course get on the move after school and work to counterbalance all of that sitting. Set the goal of doing one “larger” workout a day — whether it’s riding your bike, taking a walk or doing your old school faves, like squats, lunges, pushups and situps. You don’t need fancy equipment or the right outfit — just use your own body weight.
Plus, there are so many great online classes and videos. We love this one created by Courtney. It’s short, sweet and guarantees a good sweat.
You don’t need to be at the beach or on a mountaintop to find your inner zen. If that were the case, all those wallpaper backgrounds you see behind your classmates or colleagues on Zoom or Microsoft Teams sessions would have a different effect! Finding inner zen is more about a mindset than it is about location. That said, our environment influences our mood. For example, seek natural light whenever possible to boost your mood and ease eye strain. If you have downtime between meetings and classes, throw on the Spotify and let your favorite playlist bring a smile to your face. (Just make sure to do this during breaks, or at minimum triple-check that you’re on mute!)