After a year of working from home at the card table, I pay the price to the physiotherapist
Now I’m paying the price. An MRI last month showed three intervertebral discs protruding into my lower spine, two of which squeezed the sciatic nerve that runs down my left leg to my foot. The diagnosis sounded like something you might get after being injured in a car accident. But my orthopedic surgeon and physiotherapist said that the vertebral pad discs most likely came in part from something more prosaic: a lousy posture in my poorly designed makeshift workspace.
I’m hardly the only one who hurts. Physiotherapists in Massachusetts and Rhode Island told me that although business collapsed during the lockdown in the first half of 2020, a torrent of patients of head, neck, shoulder and back pain related to ergonomically inconvenient home offices is soon to come – Institutions sued.
“Beds and couches have become workplaces,” said Don Levine, co-founder of Pappas OPT Physical, Sports and Hand Therapy in Middletown, RI. “They put a lot of strain on the lower back and neck. Working at the dining table can also lead to problems, as hard surfaces and poor posture increase the pressure on the structures in the back. “
Bob Beese knows this all too well. The 51-year-old financial planner in Portsmouth, RI went to see Levine in the fall and complained of pain in his left shoulder. The physiotherapist asked where he worked at home.
Beese said he spends 14 hours a day on a laptop on his dining table. He was sitting on a low unpadded chair that caused him to tilt his hands up. He leaned forward to look at the screen instead of looking at a monitor that was at eye level on his desk in the office. And he seldom got up to stretch.
Levine encouraged him to move to a larger padded chair in the kitchen and work at the table there until he returned to the office in January. He also urged Beese to sit up straight and regularly do certain exercises and stretches that relieved the pain.
“I felt like an idiot,” Beese said of his injury. “You think it’s because you played basketball with the kids in the driveway. You don’t expect that from just sitting. “
The surge in injuries largely reflects how quickly many of us set up home offices during the lockdown, the physiotherapists said. Jessica Douglas, director of clinical operations for joint ventures Physical Therapy and Fitness, said 70 to 80 percent of patients at the company’s 10 clinics in Massachusetts have ailments, some of which are workplace-related configured in March 2020 and left in place.
“What worked on short notice in the first week or two was something people kept working from home for months and now a year,” said Douglas. “The human body cannot compensate for posture problems.”
Douglas often emails patients photos of themselves at work so she can suggest ways to improve their posture. She puts much of the blame on long-term use of laptops instead of the desktop computers that patients had in the office.
Laptops are fine for a short time, Douglas said, but not for the long work days many of us had during the pandemic. If you sit at a laptop with your arms bent at the correct 90-degree angle, she explains, the screen is too low for your head and you inevitably lean forward. Every inch your earlobe moves in front of your shoulder, they say adds 10 pounds of pressure on your neck and spine.
I emailed Douglas a picture my wife took of me while I was working on a breaking news at home shortly after I woke up in March 2020. At that time the card table and dining room chair were in our bedroom before I moved it to my daughter’s old room. Douglas laughed.
“I want to fix so many things,” she said. Not only was I stooped, she said, I also turned my legs to one side. “This is the most common way people injure their intervertebral discs – bending forward in combination with a twisting motion.”
Douglas recommends that people who work on laptops have a separate keyboard and monitor that they can place at eye level. You should also sit on a chair with good lumbar support – an unpadded dining room chair is not enough – and your feet are flat on the floor or on a footrest.
Marie Figueroa, a physician in physical therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital in Waltham, said many patients lately have been complaining of pain that came out of nowhere. But they described home office setups that cause trouble: sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter, sitting on the sofa with the laptop on your thighs, typing on the computer while lying in bed.
A Figueroa patient had so bad back pain during work that she could neither sit nor stand. The woman was lying on her back on the floor, laying the laptop on her stomach and propping her head on pillows to look at the screen.
“I couldn’t believe how she positioned herself,” said Figueroa. She said to the patient, “You are trying to help your back, but you will injure your neck.”
Actually, that didn’t sound that crazy. Sitting and standing made my sciatica so worse that I also toied with lying down. But I came to my senses. After getting up to take a hot shower every night with a throbbing pain, I went on sick leave. I received prescriptions for pain relievers and a muscle relaxant and started seeing a physical therapist twice a week.
Some patients use a standing desk to help maintain correct posture, and that’s okay, several physical therapists said. But no ergonomically sensible position is healthy if you stay frozen for hours.
Levine, the Rhode Island physical therapist who treated Beese, recommends patients set a timer so they remember to take breaks and run around. People forget that they used to leave their desks in the office for a cup of coffee or chatting with colleagues.
“If you are [working] At home, your day can start the minute you wake up when you go to bed, ”Levine said.
Levine even treats high school students with pain caused by poor posture in online class. “We’re seeing things that we shouldn’t see until later adulthood in some of these kids taking their classes from the bed or couch,” he said.
My pain has improved a bit since I started physiotherapy, Stretching exercises at home and Take medications. I borrowed a desk that I can use while sitting and standing, and found an adjustable chair. I also have a separate monitor and keyboard. And I vowed to take breaks.
The Globe Newsroom is slated to reopen later this year, so I have at least a few more months to work from home.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at [email protected]