How To Fix Your Back If You F*cked It Up In Lockdown
I truly did kick off lockdown working with the very best intentions, determined to get up, get dressed and plonk myself on a suitable desk chair every morning.
Unfortunately, it turns out that my resolve to be a perfect home worker simply wasn’t enough to withstand the outside pressures of living through a global pandemic.
Very soon, my work clothes were replaced with comfy pyjamas, my unbrushed hair left in a tangle of knots. I found it difficult to get out of bed in the morning, and began kicking off the first few hours of my shift propped against a mountain of pillows, trying to feel as cosy and secure as possible.
By late morning, I’d shuffle to the couch, usually draping some sort of heavy throw – or sometimes, even a full blown duvet – over me as I slumped over my laptop.
For a while, I convinced myself that I was practicing some form of pandemic self-care. That I was wrapping myself up in a safe – and ultimately harmless – quarantine cocoon.
I imagined I would eventually emerge as the girl I was on that bright, cold day back in March 2020, packing up her laptop and office stationary for what she imagined would be a few short, ultimately forgettable weeks.
But then, after the excesses of Christmas and the stark realisation that I wasn’t just going to wake up from a bad dream anytime soon, I decided to get fit and to actually begin treating my body with a bit of respect.
In all honesty, I hadn’t thought of my body as a living, breathing, important thing that needed maintenance and attention for some time.
I’d ignore headaches from too much screen time and would only acknowledge the minimal amount of steps taken on my FitBit with a sigh of resignation.
But then, I started working out properly and drinking water and generally keeping a closer eye on the goings on inside my body. With horror, I began realising I had the posture of Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and the twinges to my back were causing me to make similarly creaturous noises.
With office reopenings on the horizon, I began wondering how I could minimize any damage to my back in the final run before returning to my sturdy office chair, and decided to have a chat with some actual experts.
I spoke with Damien Kelly, a chartered physiotherapist with nine years experience in the field of professional sport. With a masters degree from the University of Western Australia, Damien’s studies have included a strong focus on spinal issues.
Speaking with UNILAD, Damien remarked that he’s been seeing a lot of patients who have struggled to adjust to lockdown at his private Surrey clinic, Physica Health. Far too many have been working the same amount of hours in their own homes without making the necessary adjustments.
According to Damien:
We’re finding that people are spending long periods of time in less than optimum positions. A lot less movement.
And their exercise routines and other routines of daily life have also been affected, which means they’re moving less, and that can be a factor certainly in increasing back pain and other issues as well.
Prior to lockdown, people would have been getting more movement just from very basic everyday activities you wouldn’t even count as exercise, from walking to work or heading out to get lunch. Nowadays, it wouldn’t be unusual to remain in the same position for eight, nine hours at a time.
Damien has advised living room workers to make sure to increase their daily amount of standing and walking ‘as much as possible’, whether this be through taking breaks or including it within their working hours. For example, taking the time to move around during phone calls.
According to Damien, the optimum amount of time a person should be getting up and moving should be every half hour, but he did concede that this can be tricky when tied up with work.
Therefore, starting with every 45 minutes and gradually increasing it could a good way to start, as would mixing it up between a standing and a sitting set up. Another good tip is to position work equipment, such as your printer, a bit further away so you actually have to get up and walk a bit.
So that could literally be on your desk or your counter where you have your laptop up high. Those few minutes, or even hours by the end of the day, that you have accumulated in standing, will all decrease that time you’ve spent sitting.
This gives your body a chance and your spine a chance to get more mobile, get moving, and all of that will reduce your risk of feeling tight and stiff and developing back pain.
Furthermore, making sure you have a good working from home set up will ultimately mean greater comfort in the long run, no matter how tempting that big pile of pillows might look in the short term.
Damien wouldn’t advise working from bed or from a sofa, explaining:
The overall theme of the advice I would give is that the back is designed to be moved, and the more movement it can get, it will help to keep the spine mobile, strong and healthy.
Whereas, if you’re in any position, particularly less than optimal on a bed or on a couch, they’re certainly positions that you wouldn’t want to be in for a long time.
So it’s okay to do them for a very short period of time, but you would want to make sure that you are, in the long run, have something set up that’s better than that, more ergonomically designed.
Damien has advised creating a set-up where your shoulders are relaxed and your head is positioned so that you’re looking straight forward at your laptop or computer, rather than sitting in a ‘hunched’ posture with ‘forward shoulders and raised shoulders’.
Improving the way you sit in your makeshift working environment will apparently ultimately help to reduce the risk of ‘feeling tight’ in your upper traps, shoulders and neck:
So you would want to go back and think, how are you sitting? Is the top of your screen roughly level with your eyeline?
You want to make sure that, rather than reaching very far forward to your laptop, could you even get a separate keyboard and have your laptop screen at arm’s length away?
Because straight away, then you’re not reaching forward to try and get to your keyboard or get your laptop and you’re not in a hunched position for long periods of time. So all of that will reduce the risk of feeling sore, developing aches and pains in your neck and shoulders.
UNILAD also spoke with musculoskeletal specialist physiotherapist, Matt Murray‑Downing about how to reach the end of lockdown without suffering too many aches and twinges. And it’s a far more complex issue that you might think.
Matt has a London-based clinic, Pure Sports Medicine, and his company – WorkFitHealth – focuses on the musculoskeletal health of employees.
Back pain is a very common musculoskeletal issue, regardless of what else it going on in the world, with Matt explaining that, in general, about 15% of what they see at the clinic is to do with back pain.
Like Damien, Matt has also seen a rise in back pain among his patients, as well as a general rise in pain in general. He attributes this to a ‘reduction in general exercise and movement more than anything’.
Matt has also noted that back pain is ‘hugely linked to psychology’, and that a number of non structural factors need to be addressed when a patient complains of this issue:
The view that I like to have on back pain is for people to have a broader look on it. I think we get very caught up on thinking about pain as structurally something must be wrong.
But actually in as few as 1% of lower back pain that we see, there’s actually a structural reason for back pain. So often for me, you’re looking at the whole picture, breaking down into exercise, sleep, psychology, stress levels and that can all have an impact on back pain.
A report published last year by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that more than two-thirds of UK adults (69%) felt somewhat or very worried about the effects of coronavirus on their lives, with 63% expressing concerns for the future, while 56% felt stressed or anxious.
It’s therefore unsurprising that stress and psychological factors will have had a knock on physical effects during what has been an extremely stressful year for many people.
Matt explained that he screens every patient for these issues, and has noticed stark disparities over the course of the pandemic:
You can bet your bottom dollar that my patients that are having a really cushy time at home at the minute, their chances of picking up chronic pain are far less than my patients who are super stressed, worried about job security, perhaps lost jobs etc.
Considering how exactly we can strive to keep back pain at bay, Matt emphasised the importance of keeping on top of general health:
I think particularly in the current climate, we’ve got some good evidence now about general exercise being an improvement. It doesn’t have to be anything specific.
We’re moving away from this idea that you need a good core for back pain. Just because you’ve got a friend who does CrossFit, that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the answer to your back pain.
I think that it doesn’t matter what exercise you’re doing, as long as you’re staying active, you’re likely to prevent back pain. It’s kind of around this holistic view, and again it’s around exercise, sleep, nutrition.
How many of those factors are looking good? Are any of those not looking good? See how you can improve it.
I might have someone whose got a really good exercise routine, but they’re not sleeping very well because they’re someone who stays up super late. I don’t know, perhaps they’re going through a break-up. We might try and address those two factors.
With so much going on right now that we can’t control, it’s comforting to know that there are at least some things we can do to reduce back pain and discomfort.
CreditsOffice for National Statistics (ONS)
Office for National Statistics (ONS)