If my doctor saw my posture right now, she would be disappointed in me. No matter how hard I try to adjust, I find myself slouched over, straining my neck and shoulders while working on my laptop. Like many Coloradans, about 8 percent of the population, I have been working from home since last spring—staring at a screen for a regrettable 10-plus hours a day (sometimes longer depending on what new documentary is released that week). But as the day progresses, my back aches, my eyes burn, and my shoulders tighten. These complaints might not be symptoms of COVID-19, but medical experts agree that ramifications of the pandemic—like working for longer hours, exercising less, and ongoing mental and emotional stress—are negatively affecting our bodies, from head to toe.
While my sedentary lifestyle has allowed me to steer clear of COVID-19—something I am very fortunate for—my body has undoubtedly taken a beating, and I’m not the only one. According to experts, visits to the doctor’s office for neck, back, and other painful areas have increased since the onset of the pandemic.
“Based on what I’ve seen at my clinic, the instances of neck and back pain have gotten higher,” says Dr. Shen, an orthopedist at Advanced Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Specialists, where he exclusively treats issues in the neck, mid-back, and lower back. “The problem with the pandemic is more people are doing things from home. More sitting or desk work, more homework, less activity, less mobilization. And that is contributing significantly to why I’m seeing higher incidences of neck and back pain in the general population.”
According to Shen, the most strenuous position for the back is sitting—especially with poor posture. From what Shen has seen in his specialty, 80 percent of the population eventually experiences symptoms in their spine related to neck and back pain. “Back pain is sometimes the second or third most common reason why patients will see doctors,” he says. And in the absence of commutes and designated times for breaks, Shen believes Coloradans are working well past the typical 9 to 5 workday at mediocre workstations, bringing little relief to our hunched-over, stiff postures.
Ergonomics—the physical efficiency of our workspaces—play a huge role in the way our bodies feel day-to-day. Dr. Micaela O’Connor of Be Chiropractic, who has seen an uptick in patients since the beginning of the pandemic, says the change in office ergonomics to our makeshift workstations at the kitchen table or a cozy chair aren’t supportive environments for our spines.
“Don’t sit on the couch,” O’Connor says. “I encourage getting a wireless keyboard and a wireless mouse, and then getting some sort of like table or a stand in order to bring [your] laptop up to eye level.”
Seemingly minimal additions like an external screen—or big additions like an ergonomic office chair and standing desk—can make a huge difference. And so does getting up and moving around, O’Connor says.
“You would think working at home people might not necessarily be tied to their desk as much, but we’ve honestly been seeing the opposite,” she says. “Typically when you’re working in an office, you have a meeting so you have to get up and walk and meander and get down to your meeting, whereas right now, you just click the next Zoom link in your calendar.” O’Connor recommends setting a timer on your phone or watch to get up, stretch, or try to exercise. Our bodies need healthy, daily movement, O’Connor says, to relieve pressure placed on our spines which causes back and neck pain.
Among her patients, O’Connor sees a correlation between those suffering with back pain and their increased mental and emotional stress. The human body is susceptible to pain and injury when it’s under a lot of pressure, she says, and the last year has been undeniably stressful. “If you’re coming to me with a pain and a symptom, it’s a sign that your body’s having a hard time adapting to whatever you’re doing,” O’Connor adds, “And stress affects our body’s capability to adapt to our environment.”
Our environments at home—which vary depending on access to resources and wealth—tend to be overcrowded, distracting, loud, and also extremely dry. According to Dr. Richard Davidson, an ophthalmologist with UCHealth Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center in LoDo, most people who live in the Centennial State have some form of dry eye. Extended screen time since the start of the pandemic has “tipped the scale,” Davidson says, exacerbating eye strain and ongoing dry eye problems.
“When we’re on these devices, we tend not to blink as often,” he says “If you miss blinks, which most of us do when we’re on our screens, that cumulative effect can really result in strain and dryness of the ocular surface [in the eye].” To avoid damaging eye vision, Davidson encourages his patients to take breaks and use over-the-counter eye drops—which mimic tears to moisten the eye.
Some Denverites have found relief from the intensity of screens with blue-light glasses—lenses that claim to reflect the harmful blue light generated by computers and phones. Davidson, who says that blue-light glasses remain controversial among experts, encourages patients to try anything that helps their eyes feel better. But nothing works as well as stepping away from all the stress-inducing screens and escaping outside.
As the state slowly reopens and more Coloradans get vaccinated, many have already returned to their original workstations at the office while others—like myself—continue to inhabit the cramped, dimly lit makeshift desks in the corners of our homes. It could be weeks to months before many of us see our office chairs and standing desks again. Until that moment comes, remember to get up and move. Our bodies are depending on it.