I Had an Expert Assess My WFH Routine—And It's Posing Major Health Risks

woman working from home

Stocksy

I’ve spent most of my freelance career hunched over my laptop in a local cafe, or, more recently, tucked into my sofa as I inch towards my word count. While freeing and dreamy in theory, in reality, working from home can prove to be anything but—as evidenced by a recent night when I woke up suddenly and completely unable to turn my head. It was 3 a.m., and I was in unprecedented, excruciating pain. I called a late-night urgent care, where a doctor assured me I wasn’t dying and asked whether I stretched. I paused. “Sometimes.” As in, theoretically, I have stretched. I get the concept. The doctor sighed and sent me on my way with a pain relief prescription and a serious warning—if I didn’t change my daytime habits, this would happen again.

More of us than ever are making do on the couch or at the kitchen table, far from ergonomic chairs and standing desks, or any incentive to leave bed. In the interest of maintaining mobility in my neck and shoulders, I asked a board-certified clinical ppecialist in orthopaedic physical therapy, Dr. Theresa Marko, PT, DPT, MS, to critique my WFH routine and offer tips and tricks for all of us trying to stay well while we work from home.

My WFH Setup

First, I laid out my routine for Dr. Marko: Essentially, I work sitting at my kitchen table with my laptop in front of me, or sitting on the sofa with my laptop in my lap. Unsurprisingly, Marko took immediate issue with this. “My initial thoughts are sitting at the kitchen table is more optimal than the couch,” she says, kindly, considering I’m prone to folding myself into pretzel-like contortions on the sofa. She continues, “Ideally, when sitting you want to be on a firm, yet cushioned surface, and you want your back to be upright with support. You also ideally want your hips to be a higher level than your knees, so that this takes pressure off of your pelvis and lumbar spine. Sitting on the couch doesn't really give these things.” If you’re working from home and you don’t have access to a table or seating that positions your hips higher than your knees, she says, “You can sit on some pillows and put pillows behind you to make it more supportive.”

Why It's Problematic for My Body

Not only is the position of your body important, but where you put your computer matters, too. “At the kitchen table, your laptop is on the table and your arms are likely at your side, so your neck can relax,” says Marko. “With the couch, often one has the laptop on their lap, so they are markedly looking down, straining their necks or the laptop is on the coffee table and the person is severely leaning forward, causing severe hip flexor shortening and tightness and probably straining their back, upper back, and neck because they are reaching forward so much.” Translation: working from the couch, with no support, is a recipe for harming your entire body. While I have no illusions about personally opting for this position in the past, if I want to preserve my neck and back health, it’s clear that change is in order.

How to Amend Those Habits

I take breaks every few hours—whether it be due to self care or my ADHD—though I’ve noticed that as of late, I usually spend those breaks in the same hunched position, scrolling on my phone. Dr. Marko challenged me to amend this habit, as well: “Get up. Walk around. Stretch. You really don't want to break in the same position.” Extended periods of sitting puts your body at risk for a slew of serious conditions including heart disease, high blood sugar, and even cancer; the Mayo Clinic recommends moving around every 30 minutes, and opting to stand during leisure activities like watching TV. I’ve found the pomodoro technique—in which you work in 25-minute bursts, separated by five-minute breaks—is an easy and effective way to stay on task and move my body.

Finally, I wear a wrist guard for carpal tunnel while I type—after decades of texting, my wrists are already starting to feel the strain of keyboard activity, and I don’t want my pain to worsen. Marko says of my preventative habit, “It's good that you are wearing a wrist guard for the carpal tunnel, but what are you doing to treat the carpal tunnel? There are exercises and stretches that can help it go away.” She advised that I check in with a physical therapist for this specific issue; for anyone facing acute pain while they work from home, “PT's do offer telehealth now, so that is also a non in-person Covid option.”

The Products That Work

Adjustable Ergonomic Laptop Stand: Now that my routine had been thoroughly adjusted—and I’d swiftly ordered a laptop stand so I could stand at my kitchen table —I wondered about other common work-from-home mistakes. One near universal faux pas, says Marko, is working from bed: “This doesn't really allow your legs to go anywhere, so can put stress on your back. It also promotes slouching and that can strain your neck, mid back, and lower back.” While it may seem tempting to answer emails from under the covers, especially during the cold winter months, moving to another part of the house can have positive posture effects. “People often sit too far from the table or computer and lean too far forward, like what happens when sitting on the couch and using the coffee table,” adds Marko.

Ticova Ergonomic Office Chair: Sitting up is certainly preferable to hunching over or lying down, but what you sit on matters, too, says Marko. “Don't sit in a hard wooden kitchen chair,” she warns. (Oops. Another adjustment to my personal routine.) “Get a good office chair that goes up and down and is adjustable.” She also recommends using an external mouse, rather than your laptop’s built-in trackpad, and “a mouse pad that has a gel cushion for your wrist.”

Theracane: When it comes to relieving WFH pain, Marko endorses the Theracane for teasing out tension. “I like people to have one of those nearby to help them mobilize and loosen their own upper traps.” Additionally, “You definitely need to move and stretch,” says Marko, who recommends flexing your neck, upper back, hamstrings, and hip flexors for a full-body reset. “I also recommend getting a foam roller to roll out your thoracic spine,” she adds. “This helps combat all of the leaning forward that sitting at the computer encourages.”

Telehealth Physical Therapy Assessment: For the best and most bespoke joint and muscle health, Marko recommends seeking a personal physical therapy assessment. “Everyone's body is different, chairs are different, desks are different,” she notes, “I would recommend people seek out the expert advice of a physical therapist and do a telehealth session with them. This way we can watch you at your desk and see what some issues might be. I have done several of these already. It really helps.”

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