6 Spine-Healthy Habits Remote Workers and Students Should Build

Remote work or school might save you some time and aggravation (no more fighting traffic, hooray!), but if you’re not careful you could be setting yourself up for back pain. Our expert has six tips for a spine-friendly WFH experience.

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How has the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic affected your spine health if you're working or going to school remotely? Your work or study from home habits and environment can cause a “pain-demic” for your upper and lower back.

Spine health habits for remote workers and studentsBuild spine-healthy habits if you're working or studying remotely.

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a boon to workers and students able to swap the confines of cubicles and classrooms for the comfort of working and studying remotely. Despite all the economic and time-saving advantages of working and studying from home, studies suggest the home environment can wreak havoc on your spine’s health.

Mike Martinez, MD, spine specialist and owner of Way Out West Spine + Mobility, Fort Worth, TX. and assistant professor at Texas Christian University and the UNT Health Science Center School of Medicine, says the pandemic hit brought in a flurry of patients of all ages with back pain from Zooming on the couch, slouching at the kitchen table and other bad studying and work-from-home habits.

“Young children usually present with pain and achiness being present off the side of the spine versus pain directly over the vertebrae while adults, especially those over 40 to 50 years of age generally complain of pain and stiffness in the upper and/or lower spine,” says Dr. Martinez. Neck pain, headaches, jaw pain and sciatica also bring patients into Dr. Martinez’s practice.

Herniated discs and degenerative disc disease become more of a risk as the pandemic stretches on and your WFH habits don’t improve. Fortunately, a little exercise and a little workspace optimization go a long way; Dr. Martinez estimates close to 90% of cases will resolve with proper exercise.

Follow these six tips from Dr. Martinez to make sure your WFH or studying is spine-safe. 

1. Stretch

When working or attending classes remotely, there’s a tendency you’ll be more sedentary and instead of taking time for stretching exercises, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using your breaks to doomscroll through social media on your phone or binge-watch YouTube videos.

Don’t. Put down the phone and, instead, schedule breaks to do stretches that can help keep your neck and back relaxed and pain-free, says Dr. Martinez.

Research suggests that an exercise program of neck stretching exercises twice daily during the workday and endurance training twice a week can reduce neck pain and increase neck flexion.

Although people expect to see immediate results, Dr. Martinez shares that you may not see noticeable results until around a month to six weeks.

2. Implement core neck exercises   

Dr. Martinez shares that core neck exercises are a great way to combat muscle stress and neck and back pain that can result from poor posture. He emphasizes that extended periods of poor posture like slumping over a computer keyboard can put significant stress on the trapezius muscle causing the muscle to shrink and tighten.

The trapezius muscle, a large triangular muscle is attached to the skull’s base and the upper spine is crucial to neck and shoulder movement and helping to stabilize the shoulder blades.

Before beginning any new stretching or exercise program be sure to consult a physician. But if your doc signs off, try these exercises:

  • Trapezius stretch with elastic band
  1. While holding an elastic band between your hands, place the band at the back of your skull.
  2. Slowly tilt your head back to its full range of motion as you feel the resistance from the band.
  3. Bring your head back to neutral in alignment with your spine.
  4. Repeat for 10 reps
  • Shoulder shrugs with weights
  1. Choose 2 items of equal weight such as 2 books, 2 quarts of water, or 2 hand weights, and hold one item in each hand.
  2. Position keeping hands near your sides
  3. Slowly raise up and shrug your shoulders for several seconds
  4. Gently release shoulder shrug and bring back arms to neutral
  5. Repeat for 10 reps 

Spine health habits for remote workers and students shoulder shrugsUse shoulder shrugs to build strength and stability in your neck (but maybe start with lighter weights than the gentleman in the photo is using).

3. Practice Your Posture 

Nobody’s born with perfect posture; if you want your posture to cause you less pain, you have to practice.

To assist in maintaining correct posture while you’re seated when working or studying, Dr. Martinez recommends using a mirror as a tool to check your posture. “It can be very hard to self-assess your posture correctly without a visual reference, and viewing your posture in a mirror is an easy way to determine what adjustments are needed,“ he says.

Posture check questions to ask yourself include, “Is my head too far forward?”, and “Am I slouching or curling my body around my chest?”

Tips for good posture when seated:

  • Rest feet flat on the floor or on a footrest
  • Keep ankles and knees uncrossed
  • Position your back against the chair. If the back doesn’t comfortably align with the chair use a cushion or backrest
  • Make sure there’s a bit of room between the back of your knees and the chair’s edge
  • Look ahead while keeping the neck comfortable and sit up straight
  • Position knees at hip height or slightly lower
  • When possible, position knees and forearms parallel to the floor
  • Position ankles forward of the knees
  • Maintain relaxed shoulders
  • Keep elbows positioned at your sides while maintaining arms in an “L” shape

Be diligent in your posture practice as It will take time to create the “new normal”.  

4. Adjust Your Light

With suboptimal lighting, there’s a tendency for the head to strain forward in various positions which can cause excessive stress and inflammation to the upper spine area. Because of the increased wear and tear, in some cases, it can lead to spine degeneration that requires surgery.

Natural ambient lighting is recommended. Lighting in general should be adjusted so you can easily see your screen and text without causing harsh glare or discomfort to the eyes.

5. Schedule Walk Breaks 

Dr. Martinez recommends an ideal daily routine to support spine health is to take “micro-breaks” every 30 minutes and walk for a few minutes.  If that’s not possible, take a 5- or 10-minute break to walk and/or stretch every hour. He adds that it’s important not to stay at your desk for an indefinite amount of time.

Spine health habits for remote workers and students walkingMovement, even slowly and for just a few minutes, is the enemy of back pain induced by a sedentary lifestyle.

6. Set Up Your Workstation for Optimal Spine Alignment   

Studies show that that not using ergonomic office furniture in your home may prevent you from attaining a healthy posture and consequently spur the development of musculoskeletal problems. The good news is there are many spine-friendly office chairs that can help stave off back pain.

Although laptops computers are great for their portability and work-from-anywhere benefits, working on them for long periods can cause back and/or neck strain because their structure is not conducive to healthy posture. Dr. Martinez says laptops make it difficult to position the keyboard and screen to maintain a spine-friendly line of sight and hand position.

“The most spine-health friendly way to work on a computer is to position the computer screen at eye level and the computer keyboard level with your extended hands,” stresses Dr. Martinez. Since laptops, in general, don’t provide that flexibility, he recommends for any long-term computer work to use a screen and keyboard that can be adjusted.

His personal computer set up is an iPad Pro positioned at eye level via a stand and an external keyboard and mouse on a desktop so he can maintain a comfortable. He shares, “You don’t have to spend a lot of money on your set up. You can use books or boxes you may have around the house to prop up your screen to the proper height.”

He advises that your goal as you work at your computer is to ensure your neck is not bent or straining forward as you’re viewing your computer screen and that you maintain proper posture with your spine in alignment and not hunched over.

Although the pandemic has propagated unique spine-health challenges for many remote workers and students, they can be easily circumvented with a bit of planning and execution. In taking time to stretch, do core neck exercises, schedule walk breaks, use natural lighting, and taking care to ergonomically arrange your desk, chair, and computer you’ll be well on your way to maintaining a healthy and happy spine!

Updated on: 11/24/20
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Mike Martinez, MD
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