A Side Effect of Working from Home: Back or Neck Pain That Needs Medical Attention

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September 15, 2020


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The prolonged, six-month phase of working from home since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the backs and necks of many adults of all ages, says Justin Thottam, D.O., physiatrist with the Spine Center at Miami Neuroscience Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida.

So much so that there’s been about a 30 percent increase since March in the number of patients complaining about pain and discomfort related to neck and back issues, he added.

“At this point, many patients have been waiting for too long before seeing a doctor, and doing more work from home and exasperating their pain,” explains Dr. Thottam. “We’re seeing an increase in the number of patients with increasing severity of pain.”

He emphasizes that neck and back pain should not be ignored, and that fear of COVID-19 should not be a reason to avoid seeing your doctor, especially since Baptist Health facilities have had screening and safety measures in place. Since March, long periods of staying at home has spurred a near epidemic of poor posture, which can be made worse by longer-than-normal sessions at the computer or hours of watching TV — without much exercise or other physical activities to help combat too much sitting.

“Many of the complaints are more related to radiculopathy — back pain shooting down to the legs or neck pain going down the arms,” says Dr. Thottam. “Much of it has to do with poor posture, especially after logging so many months of working on a computer at home without their special desk or ergonomic chair they may have had at the office.”

The patients range widely in age, from young adults to seniors, and from those “who are hobbled over and can barely walk” to those with “modest symptoms who are able to manage with medications and physical therapy.” The more serious cases, which could involve serious disk herniations, may require surgery or spinal injections of corticosteroid, or steroid medicine, to reduce inflammation and swelling, he said.

It’s time to get up, do some stretching, and some exercises to prevent or alleviate back pain, says Dr. Thottam. In a Zoom presentation from late May, Back Pain: Prevention, Causes and Treatment (see video below), Dr. Thottam explains how less moving around can be bad for your back, from the cervical spine (the neck) to the lumbar region or lower back.

“So, try to be aware of your posture. And when you realize what you’re doing, correct your posture. Do some of the exercises that you can. Do stretching exercises if possible.”

Most back pain can be avoided or minimized if you are active and avoid positions and activities that may increase or cause pain — including lifting heavy objects improperly, bad posture at your computer workstation or sleeping positions on mattresses that contribute to chronic aches or pain.

Regular exercise can help reduce overall strain on the lower back. A commitment to fitness also helps you recover faster from injuries.

Excess weight is a contributor to back pain. To protect your back, it’s important to maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI) — a measurement that uses your height and weight to measure your body fat. Excess weight puts more stress on the back. For example, if you are 30 pounds overweight, it’s like carrying a 30-pound weight around all day. That can fatigue your muscles and weaken your back.

The most conventional non-surgical treatments for back pain include hot or cold packs, strengthening exercises, physical therapy, anti-inflammatories, such as Ibuprofen and Naproxen, and low dose courses of steroids.

Orthopedic physicians and fitness trainers agree that regular strength-building exercises should focus on the so-called “core muscles” that make up the abdomen and lower back. Strengthening core muscles can contribute to improved spine health, better protecting amateur athletes or weekend warriors from lumbar stress fractures or other serious back injuries. When these core muscles contract, they stabilize the spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle — and create a solid base of support. And that’s important for performing everyday activities, not just organized sports.

“By strengthening your core, you essentially strengthening the muscles around your spine,” explains Dr. Thottam. “When those muscles get weak, the more that stress goes onto the lumbar spine or the cervical spine. And that can accelerate the degeneration of discs (which can result in spinal stenosis, or the narrowing of the spinal canal). Muscle weakness also allows for arthritis to advance.”

With everyone justifiably focused on infection protection these days, you’re more likely to forget about the importance of spine health.

“We are born with only one spine,” says Dr. Thottam. “So, the best way to take care of your spine is by preventing anything bad from happening to it. Try everything you can. You can be eating healthy, losing weight, being active, doing home exercises on a daily basis, or even twice or three times a day, if possible. I know it’s a lot to ask and you may not get results right away. But, in the long term, we know it can help patients a lot.”

Related article:
Core Muscle Strength and Spine Health: It’s Not Just About the Abs

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