Work from Home with Less Pain

In this new normal in which many Americans are working from home, you might be doing your best to find spaces to work, whether that’s in bed, on the couch or at the dining table. And even if you have a home office, it most likely isn’t as ergonomic—designed to be friendly to your back, neck and eyes—as your office workspace.

If you’re feeling new aches and pains because of this, you’re not alone, and there is something you can do about it. Kristin Somerville is a UNC Health physical therapist. She shares simple tips to take care of your body.

1. Change positions frequently.

We’ll start with the most important tip: Don’t stay in one position for too long.

“The popular belief is that we have to maintain a perfect posture throughout the day, and that’s not necessarily the correct answer to reducing or preventing pain,” Somerville says. “At the end of the day, problems arise not necessarily from the position we are in, but from the amount of time we spend in the position.”

While it is important to give your body the proper support it needs, Somerville says our bodies are resilient and can tolerate less-than-ideal positions, just not for hours on end. So change up where you’re working, what you’re sitting on and the position of your computer a few times a day. In short: Don’t spend eight hours sitting in one place and one position.

2. Get up and move.

“Our body prefers movement to being still,” Somerville says. “For three to five minutes every hour, stand up and move around, whether it’s walking up or down stairs to get water or using the bathroom at the other end of the house.”

Moving around gets your blood flowing, relieves you of potentially poor posture, and gives your body a chance to recognize any discomfort that might have developed from being in that position.

“At the office we are probably more mobile than we are at home. At home it’s really easy to sit on the couch and stay there, where at the office you’re probably getting up and walking around more and taking a break.”

Somerville says you should set a timer if you need help remembering to take a movement break.

3. Raise your computer to eye level.

At the office, computer monitors are typically positioned at eye level to help prevent eye strain. At home, that computer layout often isn’t the same, and many people are working on laptops.

“Make sure your head isn’t always looking down. This is what contributes to neck and upper back pain,” Somerville says. “You want to raise your computer screen to make sure it’s closer to eye level.”

Stack books, put a pillow in your lap, or find another way to prop up your screen. If you have the ability to work on a larger monitor at eye level, do it.

4. Keep your arms supported.

So you just raised your computer screen. If you have a laptop, that means you may be lifting your arms higher to get to your keyboard.

“Compensate for your arms and wrists by putting a pillow or some kind of support there so they aren’t just floating and you’re having to work to keep them up.”

Somerville says it can be somewhat of a balancing act to find the right support system. Keep giving new positions a try until you find something that works for you. You can also add a keyboard at table level, and then you may be able to rest your arms more comfortably.

5. Cushion your lower back.

Office chairs typically have backs that curve along your spine to support your lower back. They are designed to be used for long periods of time. The furniture you are using at home may not be.

“No matter where you are sitting, make sure you use pillows or other materials to support your back,” Somerville says. “Think about lumbar (lower back) support. The more space we have between our back and the back of a chair, the less supported we are.”

Use what you have to add that support: You can roll up a blanket, add pillows or even use a big stuffed animal. More support will ease lower and middle back pains.

6. Protect your eyes.

Lighting is another big consideration. Somerville says to work with as much natural light as you can.

“Overhead lights can put strain on the eyes, especially as you’re looking at a computer. You also don’t want to have to lean in closer to your computer to see because that will put strain on different parts of the body.”

To make your computer text easier to read you can make the font bigger, adjust your screen brightness or lessen the amount of artificial light around you.

7. Stretch.

Take some time in your day to add in stretching to loosen up anything that has become stiff or achy.

“Some easy stretches are cat and cow in yoga, which you can do in the traditional way on the floor, or just sitting in a chair while curving your spine forward and backward. Neck rolls and shoulder rolls will help get everything moving as well,” Somerville says.

Using a foam roller to massage tight back muscles can also help ease tension.

8. Seek treatment if needed.

Having some aches or discomfort is normal, Somerville says. If you can find a way to address your problem with the tips above, there’s no need to take any further steps.

“Something that requires further intervention would be if the pain persists for three or four days, it’s getting worse, or it’s interrupting sleep.”

Most physical therapists are available for consultation, and right now most first visits are being done virtually. Most providers also offer in-person visits if the situation warrants it.

Need a physical therapist? Find one who can help you.