Sore back, neck from working at home? Quick fixes to improve your workspace

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4 health effects of sitting at a desk — and solutions
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On video-conference calls across the country, workers are revealing their at-home office spaces while they cope with the coronavirus pandemic. While some are lucky enough to have an ideal desk set-up and comfortable seating   many are stuck crammed at the kitchen table or slouched on the couch. 

The average workplace may set up each desk and chair to ensure its ergonomically correct, but the same considerations might not be in place, or even possible, in your home. 

The longer you work in a space that isn’t advantageous to your body and posture, chronic pain could become an issue, said Darcie Jaremey, an ergonomist based in Prince Edward Island that specializes in helping offices transition into more comfortable workplaces.

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“At first, you’re probably going to be feeling annoyed with aches and pains,” she said. “But if this is ignored for too long… it’s going to be exacerbated at home because things are just not set up for you to work optimally.”

Keeping a poor work-from-home environment could eventually lead to more severe pain that keeps you up at night, including burning and tingling sensations, said Jaremey.

“You’re going to find the range of motion is going to be reduced,” she said. “And if this is ignored even further… you’re more likely to develop something more chronic.”

The stress of the coronavirus outbreak layered with an office space that isn’t conducive to your well-being can cause pain to escalate   especially if you’re at the kitchen table, trying to attend to children at the same time, she explained.

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Easy ways to fix your work from home space

It’s very possible to adjust your space without purchasing entirely new furniture, said Jaremey. However, if you have more severe pain issues already, including carpal tunnel or persistent lower back pain, special equipment may be necessary, she added.

“For the majority of us, there are simple things you can do and it’s shocking… you don’t need the fancy stuff,” she said. “You just need to make sure everything is in an optimal sitting posture.”

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Health Series: Improving posture

There are a few main areas of your workspace that you can target — the first being your laptop. Many use laptops where the screen is positioned too low, said Jaremey. 

“That results in the person leaning forward too much or bending their neck,” she said. “If you’re using [a laptop] for 10 hours plus a day… it can accumulate to neck pain and soreness.”
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The rule of thumb for monitor or laptop screen position is it should be slightly lower than your seated eye-height, she explained. “You should be able to look at the screen where your chin is parallel to the ground and you should be able to look directly across, and the bottom of the monitor should be tilted upwards.”

That tilt should be at a 15-degree angle. “So right there, your neck is already in a very good posture… and you’re not going to be putting any more risk to that area,” she said. 

Use textbooks, or an upside-down laundry basket to raise your laptop to a higher level at home, she explained. 

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For back pain, Jaremey recommends rolling up a towel and placing it behind the small of your back to provide some support. 

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Examine your work habits and see if you can reduce the amount of time your sitting, and get up frequently if possible, she recommends.

“When you get a call, you can stand up and talk to that person. Or fabricate your own, do-it-yourself standing desk by shifting books, binders… to go from sitting to standing throughout your day,” she said.

And get up at least once per hour, even for a walk around your home, she suggests.

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Achieving a ‘non-neutral’ posture

Many of us have started to work from home abruptly, and have likely not taken too much consideration towards our work-from-home space, said Michael Holmes, associate professor of kinesiology at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and the Canada Research Chair in neuromuscular mechanics and ergonomics.

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Poor posture that’s associated with your workplace equipment can create musculoskeletal pain and discomfort, along with back, wrist, shoulder and neck pain that could lead to injury, he said in an emailed statement.

If it’s possible, create a work environment that’s separate from your living space, he said.

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Avoid working at the kitchen table or on the couch, and be sure to change your position throughout the day, he added.

“Optimal posture varies for everyone; however, ergonomists will typically suggest that “non-neutral” postures be avoided,” he said. A “non-neutral” posture is one that is changed fairly frequently, which can be achieved if you get up and move, Holmes explained.

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Engaging in at-home workouts when you’re off the clock can also reduce discomfort associated with poor posture and can even help improve posture over time, he said.

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Beyond taking breaks, there are a few pieces of equipment that can be adjusted to improve how you sit, he said.

To optimize an office chair, when sitting on it, your feet should be flat on the floor while thighs are parallel to the floor. The back of your legs should be clearing the seat pan and armrests should not cause you to shrug your shoulders, he said.

“Low back pain and discomfort is a common office complaint. A good office chair can help,” he said. But those kinds of chairs can range in price based on their features, he explained.

“If you currently have a lower-end office chair, a lumbar roll for your low back would be a good addition,” he said. “If you are in the market for a new office chair, I would encourage that you look for one with adjustability.”

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However, since moving around is considered a solution to maintain proper posture, investing in office furniture might not be necessary, he said.

“I would suggest that people don’t need to rush out and purchase new office furniture,” he said. Create your own sit-to-stand work station as an alternative to making big purchases, he explained. “You simply need to be creative.”

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Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

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