What Working from Home Does to Your Body
Working from home can lead to body aches and pains from poor posture and prolonged computer use. Here's some expert tips for pain relief.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s estimated that only seven percent of employed individuals in the United States worked from home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With stay-at-home orders varying from state to state, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact percentage of the labor force that is telecommuting. However, it’s safe to say it’s fairly significant. Businesses have quickly pivoted to work from home initiatives in an effort to keep employees safe from Covid-19.
These changes forced employees to quickly transform an area of their home into a makeshift workspace that’s likely more ergonomically-challenged than a traditional office.
Also, not to mention, employees are likely taking fewer steps during the day (no walking to grab lunch, to and from the car, to another cubicle or conference room for a chat with colleagues). This is enough to throw your body out of sync.
“When it comes to our bodies, there is some truth to the commonly stated phrase, ‘Use it or lose it,” says Andrea Bennett, a New York-based occupational therapist.
“Our bodies are living organisms, constantly changing to try to meet the needs of our daily lives. Even our seemingly stiff bones have cells that change their organization in relation to how we use our body,” she says. “Although these changes don’t happen overnight, many people can feel the difference in their body after the smallest of lifestyle changes.” (This is how to prevent overeating when working from home.)
It may cause back, neck, and shoulder pain
The closest thing to a medical term for the use-it-or-lose-it adage is deconditioning, when muscles and even bones can start to deteriorate due to a decrease in (or total lack of) physical activity.
Derek Ochiai, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert in Arlington, Virginia, says the body becomes deconditioned when you aren’t moving in the same ways you’re used to.
He cites issues with laptop use that can lead to upper thoracic and shoulder pain. Typically, when you’re on a laptop, you’re looking down, or even worse, hunched over.
“Then there’s lower back pain from just sitting too long that can also be associated with that deconditioning,” says Dr. Ochiai. (Check out the best office chairs for back pain to help find relief.)
He recommends moving your laptop around your home. Move it to the kitchen counter and stand while you’re working on a report or while on a Zoom meeting.
“You don’t have to sit down with a laptop,” says Dr. Ochiai. “Use the counter and make it a sit-stand work station. If you have a type of device where the screen is detachable and can be in a different location than your keyboard, try to set that up to be ergonomic so you can sit up in a chair in a way that your neck and head are straight.”
How quickly deconditioning takes place and these aches and pains surface really depends on what other exercise you’re doing, adds Dr. Ochiai.
“People who exercise three to four times a week, they’re not going to see as much deconditioning,” he explains. “But for some people, their work is their major source of exercise, just their daily activities. When that’s the case, you can see that deconditioning in a couple of weeks. You can notice less muscle mass and more core weakness relatively quickly.” (Here’s how to get a stronger core.)
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It may cause computer vision syndrome
You may have started to experience more eye- and vision-related problems since working from home. Staring at digital screens for prolonged periods of time (laptop, smartphone, tablet, or TV) can lead to visual discomfort.
This is known as computer eye syndrome, also known as digital eye strain, which can lead to a variety of symptoms, including blurry vision, dry eyes, eyestrain, headaches, and neck and shoulder pain.
To limit the strain, the American Optometric Association recommends following the 20-20-20 rule: you take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes. (Also, follow these ergonomic desk tips for better body positioning.)
It may lead to poor circulation
If you felt like you spent much of your time sitting in an office chair before, that has nothing on how sedentary you might be while working from home.
“Tasks that would normally require walking down a hall, or up a flight of stairs, may now be done from sitting in a chair in front of a computer,” says David Nation, MD, a board-certified vascular surgeon with Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeons in Austin. “It may also be easier to fall into unhealthy eating habits at home if snack foods are more readily available.”
Dr. Nation notes that in the short term, prolonged immobility can increase the risk of blood clots forming in the veins, which leads to leg swelling, deep vein thrombosis, or pulmonary embolism.
“Over the long term, a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to the build-up of plaque in the arteries as well, which can lead to heart disease or peripheral vascular disease,” he says.
While all of this sounds bad, Dr. Nation says much of that can be prevented by being aware and proactive.
“Try to keep to a frequent exercise program, which can help compensate for sedentary time during the day,” he says. “If you are prone to leg swelling, consider wearing compression stockings or elevating your legs when resting. Finally, if you have any known history of clotting problems or arterial disease, consider discussing this with your doctor.”
It may increase the likelihood of carpal tunnel syndrome
Vishal Kancherla, DO, is seeing an uptick in complaints related to carpal tunnel syndrome among his patients, which he attributes to improper use of a computer mouse.
Carpal tunnel is “an irritation of the median nerve that can cause numbness and tingling in the hands,” says Dr. Kancherla, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Texas Orthopedics, Sports and Rehabilitation Associates.
To avoid developing the condition, or to alleviate any current pain associated with it, he suggests keeping your wrist flat when using a mouse to avoid irritation to the median nerve. (Try these wrist pain treatments for relief.)
“You can also elevate your laptop on a shoebox or stack of books. Many have even turned to a sit-to-stand desk,” says Dr. Kancherla.
In rare cases, it may lead to atelectasis
It’s rare, but one of the more serious health problems linked to a sedentary lifestyle is atelectasis.
Atelectasis is what happens when the little air sacs (alveoli) in parts of the lung don’t pop open and stay collapsed, says Mauricio Heilbron, MD, trauma surgeon and head of ER at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Los Alamitos, California. It can happen in a small area of the lung or the entire lung.
“People sitting or laying about tend not to take deep breaths from time to time, which can predispose folks to cases of pneumonia, and even cause a little fever from atelectasis,” he says.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the condition may not present any obvious symptoms if it only affects a small area of your lung. They note that if it takes over a larger area in the lung, that’s when fever, shallow breathing, and coughing can set in.
“Consider setting up a reminder to take a deep breath a few times an hour. You don’t have to do this if you are walking around though…even if it’s (literally) around the house,” advises Dr. Heilbron. “That minimal activity alone can help your pulmonary system.”
If you want to kick those aches and pains, amid other work-from-home concerns to the curb, it really boils down to good old movement.
“The more active we are and the more we use our bodies, the longer they will maintain a higher level of functioning,” says Dr. Bennett.
“The less we use our bodies, the sooner they will start breaking down and deteriorating, making our day-to-day lives a bit more challenging and effortful,” says Dr. Bennett. “And again, this is not just muscle tone we’re talking about. It’s our brains, our bones, and our other organs whose function we often take for granted.” (Next, read about the signs of good health.)
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: "National Compensation Survey"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Atelectasis"
- Mauricio Heilbron, MD, trauma surgeon and head of ER at St. Mary's Medical Center in Los Alamitos, California
- David Nation, MD, a board-certified vascular surgeon with Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeons in Austin
- Andrea Bennett, OTD, OTR/L, a New York-based occupational therapist
- Vishal Kancherla, DO, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, Texas Orthopedics, Sports and Rehabilitation Associates, Austin
- Derek Ochiai, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert in Arlington, Virginia
- American Optometric Association: "20/20/20 To Prevent Digital Eye Strain"