How to prevent musculoskeletal pain when working from home

musculoskeletal pain
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Rachel Brammer, Physiotherapist and Clinical Lead at Vitrue Health, explains how you can ensure your work from home set-up isn’t harming your mental and physical health with problems such as musculoskeletal pain

Believe it or not, hundreds of thousands of adults across the UK are fast approaching their first ‘Work From Home’ anniversary. Yes, it’s almost been a year since offices closed their doors for Lockdown 1.0, and all reports suggest that some form of ‘hybrid’ remote working (involving a combination of office and home-based work) will be the ‘new normal’ for many of us.

However, worryingly, specialists have reported a dramatic recent upsurge in WFH-related health problems, directly resulting from poor home office setups. The most common issues include lower back pain, wrist and neck aches, as well as eye strain. Indeed, as a physiotherapist, I have noticed a significant increase in patients requesting treatment for new musculoskeletal complaints.

The majority of these patients are unaware of the simple, free (or low cost) changes which they could make to their WFH set-ups to stave off the onset of numerous debilitating health conditions. As we collectively embrace a future of en-masse remote working, I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to invest some time and effort into optimising your space to create a more healthy, productive working environment.

To help you along the way, I’ve created this simple checklist of actions. There’s at least one practical action below that every remote worker can put into practice in 2021 to safeguard their mental and physical health.

Assess your posture

The average WFH employee is seated at their desk for 9 hours every day, and many confess to even longer hours now that working days are not book-ended by commuting. Inevitably, these long stretches of time spent in one position mean that the ill effects of even the smallest postural issues are likely to be exacerbated.

Knowledge is power when it comes to solving postural problems, but you don’t always need an in-person appointment to access expert advice. New, free online tools like VIDA use your computer’s webcam to intelligently assess your desk posture (including your head angle, shoulder alignment and distance from the screen) in under ten minutes, and will automatically produce a personalised report including recommendations for exercises to counteract any issues detected. This means you don’t have to second-guess your desk setup, and can instead tap in to the remote expertise of a physiotherapist without the associated time and financial costs.

Ensure your lower back is supported

Lower back pain – that’s any kind of persistent discomfort in the area between your coccyx and mid-spine – was reported as the number one complaint by newbie WFH-ers in the early days of the first lockdown. The usual cause of lower back pain is sitting in a chair that does not provide adequate support (hint: your kitchen chairs probably don’t cut it).

Investing in an ergonomic, height-adjustable desk chair with lumbar support is highly advisable for anyone who is spending long periods of time sitting down. You should be looking for a chair that curves slightly forwards at belly-button level, as this mirrors the natural curve of your spine. If you’re still waiting for your chair to be delivered, improvise by placing a small pillow at the small of your back to support the curvature. Also check that both your feet are resting flat on the floor, with equal weight distribution. If this is not the case, use a small stool or large book as a prop under your soles.

Relax your shoulders

Turn your attention to your shoulders right now. Are you tensing them? Chances are they are not fully relaxed, and one may even be higher than the other. As any physiotherapist (or masseuse!) will tell you, holding stress or tension in your shoulders has many knock-on physical effects. As well as causing stiffness in the shoulder area, it will also trigger aches in your arms, upper back, spine and neck.

To alleviate a cause of the tension, seek out a chair with wide, 90-degree arm rests, and a hands-free headset for phone calls and virtual meetings.

Finally, if you perform this quick sequence of shoulder exercises every two hours you should quickly notice an improvement in your shoulder-related pain:

  • Gently lift both your shoulders about 2 inches
  • Slowly relax them down as far as possible
  • Hold one arm across your body and use the other arm to push your elbow into your chest
  • Swap arms and repeat the stretch
  • Release, let your arms hang down as far as possible
  • Gently rotate your shoulders forwards and backwards five times
  • Notice the tension melting away

Check the height of your keyboard and screen

If you are having to hold your neck or wrists at an unnatural angle, this means that a) your screen or keyboard is at the wrong angle, and b) you are at a higher risk of developing a repetitive strain injury!

You should not have to look down at your screen – it should be directly in front of your eyes when you hold your neck straight and lift your head high. When it comes to your keyboard, it should be positioned at an angle that allows you to type with flat wrists.A laptop stand (or even some stacked books) could help you to adjust the height of your screen, and it’s possible to source wrist supports which can be attached to keyboards. In addition, many people find that a cheap USB mouse is more comfortable to use than a laptop trackpad, so try one out if you find your wrist getting stiff from scrolling.

Give your working environment a makeover

Not surprisingly, the physical features of your workspace are just as important to your health and well-being as your actual desk setup. Research has proven that a clutter-free, naturally lit room helps us to remain calm, positive, alert and focused. So avoid basement or window-free rooms if possible, and seek out spaces that are bright, well ventilated and temperature controlled.

The introduction of plants into your WFH space has also been proven to have a beneficial impact on your mental health; both because of their oxygen-supplying qualities and their calming aesthetic impact. If you live in a busy urban area, noise-cancelling headphones and an air-purifier will enhance your quality of life and health even further.

Get ready to move

Experts agree that getting up from your desk once every hour is the most important thing you can do to preemptively tackle your WFH aches and pains. Set a timer on your phone or computer so that you don’t get distracted by your overflowing inbox, and ensure that you regularly take a couple of minutes to get up and stretch. If you are at home, combine your movement break with a household chore like hanging up laundry or taking out the bins – that’s killing two birds with one stone!

Exercise doesn’t necessarily require a lot of effort to have a big positive impact. Try taking your next phone call whilst walking around the room, or use your lunch break to take a short jog or an online yoga class. If you’re looking for a fun way to motivate yourself to exercise, challenge your work colleagues to an active online game.

These six tips prove that you don’t need to spend a fortune in order to create the optimal WFH setup in your home. Whether you’re in a house share or a home study, some savvy planning and simple switches could completely change your attitude towards out-of-office working and forestall any negative health effects. Commit yourself to actioning these changes, and they will soon become a normal, positive part of your daily routine. Now that’s a New Year’s Resolution worth sticking to!


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