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For some, working from home brings neck and back pain

Chiropractor adjusting another man's back Jason Wheeler, 559th Medical Squadron physical therapist, attends to his duties at the Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Physical Therapy Clinic. Neck and upper back pain are common complaints for teleworkers whose home office conditions are less than ideal.

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JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas -- “There’s no place like home” may be an appropriate sentiment for people who favor working from the comfort of home during the novel coronavirus pandemic. However, it doesn’t ring true for those teleworkers who are feeling more pain than comfort because their home office leaves much to be desired.

“I would have to say the most common complaint of teleworkers is neck and upper back pain between the shoulder blades,” said Jason Wheeler, 559th Medical Squadron physical therapist.

Wheeler has seen his share of what he called “interesting” home setups for teleworkers. 

“I had someone who has been sitting in a beach lounger with a laptop on their lap, someone sitting on their floor with the laptop on a coffee table and a lot of people using kitchen counters or dining room tables without proper chairs for the task,” he said.

Even his own home office is less than ideal, Wheeler admitted.

“I am using a home office with a desk and office chair, but it is set for my wife’s height, so the desk appears way too tall for me, which is causing headaches and low back pain if I don’t adjust a few things,” he said. “I do this for a living and still catch myself in compromising positions from what I recommend to patients.”

Wheeler’s template for an ideal home setup is something as close to a good office setup as possible.

“The problem is that any office furniture, whether it’s at home or on base, is usually made as a one-size-fits-all design, and while most are adjustable, it just doesn’t fit certain body types and heights,” he said. “The ideal setup actually should be set for the individual so their body is supported to avoid poor posture for prolonged times.”

Wheeler recommends people raise their armrest so their shoulders feel slightly shrugged up to the ceiling in a relaxed position, sit with their hips slightly above their knees, and avoid a forward head position.

“An ideal chair would generally be as adjustable as possible, with a locking back, adjustable armrests in all directions, not just up and down, and adjustable height,” he said. “I also recommend that some people place a phone book or small stool at their feet so they can alter their foot position while they are sitting.”

In addition to using ergonomically sound furniture, desk workers can keep physical problems at bay by engaging in posture exercises throughout the workday, Wheeler said. These include exercises such as back extensions, chin tucks and shoulder shrugs – all recommended in a handout produced for last year’s 59th Medical Wing Health Rally at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

Taking breaks is one of the most important things someone with a desk job can do, whether at home or the office, Wheeler said.

“Breaks don’t have to be a complete stoppage of work; they can be having a standing desk and switching positions two to three times an hour, and they can also be five repetitions of a simple exercise that can be done hourly,” he said. “I try to set a timer on my phone for 15 minutes after my last patient of the morning and afternoon, when I am stuck on my computer typing notes. Otherwise, I end up in poor posture with headaches and shoulder pain.”

Exercises and taking breaks help office workers avoid prolonged positions, which are not ideal for the body, Wheeler said.

“Sitting is one of the worst prolonged positions for many reasons,” he said. “In sitting, a lot of underlying issues that aren’t painful when standing or working out can become problematic and spread to other aspects of life. The hips are usually flexed close to end range, which compresses a lot of structures, and the shoulders round forward when we slouch, which causes the head to protrude forward. Add a computer monitor and office chair with a soft back to the mix and all of this tends to be made much worse.” 

One of the problems with prolonged sitting is that one’s posture gets worse over time due to weakness and flexibility issues, Wheeler said.

“I tell my patients that if they want to see perfect sitting posture, then they should go by pediatrics to see 3-year-olds who haven’t been in a classroom yet,” he said.

Although teleworking can take a greater toll on the body due to inadequate home office conditions, Wheeler sees one benefit.

“If anything, people with a chronic issue now have time to finish up their work and then book some appointments to take care of things,” he said. “One positive from all of this is that I am seeing service members actually taking time to take care of themselves now, instead of waiting until just before a fitness test is due or they retire.”

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