September 4, 2020; The New York Times
The aches and pains of the pandemic are not limited to the symptoms of COVID-19. As more and more people are working from home, physicians, chiropractors, and dentists are increasingly reporting on the physical impacts of this new way of spending one’s workdays (and nights). The results are not good for the health and well-being of many of us, and often we do not realize this until we are in pain.
And apparently, we are in more pain. An April Facebook survey from the American Chiropractic Association indicated that 92 percent of chiropractors (out of 213 respondents) said that their patients were reporting more neck, back, or other musculoskeletal issues since the March 2020 stay-at-home guidance began.
It seems that many of us are working from our too-soft sofas, lounging across our beds, slouched in chairs, or hunched over laptops on coffee tables. The injuries we are incurring come from what Dr. Michael Fredericson, professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University, says is repetitive trauma. “It’s kind of like when a tire blows out on you. It wasn’t necessarily one incident; the tread was wearing down over time.”
The trauma isn’t just being seen by chiropractors, orthopedists, and physical therapists. Dentists are also seeing the physical results of our stay-at-home distress. In an article in the New York Times, prosthodontist Tammy Chen writes about the effects of the pandemic on mental health and, consequently, on dental health. The anxiety and stress that COVID-19 (or fear of it) produces leads to clenching and grinding, which can damage the teeth. She points out too that some of the poor posture during the day from the strange work positions on couches and chairs and at kitchen counters can translate into teeth-grinding issues at night.
But wait, there’s more. Chen also says that poor sleep patterns, which seem to be rampant during this pandemic, are also bad for our teeth. If we are not getting the restorative sleep we need, it usually means our nervous system is in overdrive and we are not resting and recharging. Chen says all that tension goes straight to the teeth.
Use of laptops is often at fault for these maladies, from toothaches to backaches to headaches. When we use laptop computers, we’re either forced to look down at the screen or, if we elevate the laptop, we raise our hands to type. And we almost never have the right chair for a correct ergonomic position: “ears over shoulders over hips.” Computer screens should be at eye level, something that is often not the case and can be the culprit when pain sets in.
The fix for this is fairly easy: Elevate your laptop’s screen by placing it on some books or boxes (two puzzle boxes worked for me) and purchase an inexpensive separate/external keyboard and mouse that can lay flat on the surface in front of your computer. Your posture will improve, and perhaps your typing as well!
The other demon in this mix is the inactivity our work-from-home setups have bred. “Even if you have perfect, perfect ergonomics, if you’re in the same position for too long, your body is not going to respond well,” says Heidi Henson, an Oregon-based chiropractor. “The body needs movement.”
Henson worries not only about adults, but about teens and college students spending too much time hunched over screens and not getting exercise. Doctors are reporting more cases of younger children suffering neck pain and headaches, which may be traced to increased screen time and inactivity.
Taking breaks and moving, even within a small space, is recommended—and it comes at no cost. Dr. Scott Bautch, the president of the American Chiropractic Association’s Council on Occupational Health, suggests setting a timer for every 15 to 30 minutes to remind yourself to move, and recommends three different types of breaks:
- “microbreaks” of just 5 seconds in which you change your posture in the opposite direction of where it had been;
- periodic “macro breaks” of 3-5 minutes, that could include deep breathing or stretching your shoulders; and
- the “big workout” of at least 30 minutes of exercise (ideally all at one time) riding a bike, walking, using some exercise equipment.
Dr. Chen recommends wearing retainers during the day, if you have them, to prevent grinding your teeth. She also suggests a range of relaxation exercises at the end of the day to help prepare you to slow down and be able to sleep. Among her suggestions is an Epsom salt bath in the evening, with a focus on breathing through your nose and relaxing. She also recommends deep breathing exercises just before sleep. As she writes: The more relaxed your body, the more likely you are to wake up with less tension in the jaw. That means less grinding at night.
Working at home has resulted in some strange and unusual outcomes. An increase in back and neck and dental problems would not have been the first things to pop up on such a list, but fortunately these problems are ones with solutions that are, for the most part, within reach. So, grab that stack of books (or puzzle boxes) as a base for your laptop, and do some stretches and deep breathing and then get back to work.—Carole Levine