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Sitting all day? Chiropractors share tips to avoid back and neck pain

To avoid back and neck pain, make these adjustments to your ad hoc office.
Too much time spent in any one position — sitting or standing — can trigger back pain.
Too much time spent in any one position — sitting or standing — can trigger back pain. Getty Images

Is working from home a literal pain the neck? Many of us have spent long hours hunched over impromptu workstations on beds, coffee tables and kitchen islands since the onset of the pandemic. With elevated stress levels, fewer opportunities for movement and upended routines, working from home can be a recipe for back and neck pain.

Chiropractors specialize in correcting misalignments of the neck, back and head through careful manipulations of the spine. But since many of us don’t have access to a chiropractor in person, here are some tips to help you reduce back and neck pain while working at home.

A checklist to optimize your work-from-home setup

How can you maintain good posture while working from the kitchen table? Andrew Bang, D.C., lead chiropractor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at The Cleveland Clinic, recommends this checklist to properly position your head, arms and back.

  • Head: To align your head, make sure your computer monitor is at eye level. If you have a laptop, prop it up on some old books or boxes. Bang recommends connecting an old keyboard and mouse to your laptop.
  • Arms: Your arms should hang comfortably at your sides with your elbows bent around 90 degrees. Keep your wrists parallel to the floor in a neutral position (using an external keyboard comes in handy with this). For people with wrist problems, Bang recommends purchasing an ergonomic mouse.
  • Back: Lastly, make sure your back is in the proper position. “Whatever chair you’re stuck with, you can optimize it," explained Bang. Make sure your feet are touching the floor, with your knees bent around 90 degrees or slightly extended and do your best not to rest your feet on the rungs on the chair as that can put tension on your lower back over time. Slouching is unhealthy, but so is sitting with your back overly straight. Use a lumbar pillow to preserve your spine’s natural S curve and equally distribute force across all vertebrae. And if you have the means, Bang said investing in a high quality desk chair is worth it.

7 tips to avoid back and neck pain while working from home

Bang and Barbara Rosinsky, a chiropractor in Wantagh, New York. recommended these seven simple tips to keep you free of back or neck pain between visits.

1. Stop sleeping on your stomach

Belly snoozing is the worst position to sleep in, said Rosinsky. “You have to turn your head to the left or right, and that creates neck strain,” she says. Instead, either sleep on your back with pillows under your knees or on your side with pillows between your knees. Both positions help maintain the spine’s natural curvature. “In both positions, sleep with a small pillow under your head and pull the pillow down so it’s also supporting your neck,” Rosinsky explained.

2. Do the right ab exercises

Strong abdominals are key to reducing pain in your back, but if you have back pain, traditional crunches and sit-ups actually make the pain worse, Bang explained. Instead, hold yourself in a yoga plank pose — lie on your stomach and then lift your body so you’re balancing on your hands and your toes, like a push up. Hold the position as long as you can, increasing the time with each attempt.

Side planks will also firm up your core. From the plank position, rotate your body to the left so you are balancing on your outstretched left arm and on your left foot (either stack your right foot on top of your left or place your right foot down if it's necessary for balance). Reach your right arm upward. Hold it as long as you can and then switch sides.

3. Stretch out those hamstrings

“I have more low back pain patients who sit at desk all day than are manual laborers,” said Bang. Our hamstrings get locked up from spending so many hours sitting in a chair, Bang explained. “So when we try to stand up from sitting, our hamstrings pull on our pelvis, causing misalignments in the spine and all kinds of pain."

But a few simple stretches can counter this effect. While lying on your back, wrap a yoga belt around your foot and pull your leg up, keeping it straight. Feel the stretch along the back of your leg. Then try to stretch your leg across the groin — over the left leg to right and vice versa — and then out and away from your body towards your hips and. Work yourself up to holding the stretches for 90 seconds.

4. Stop staring at your smartphone

Take a look at your phone. Notice what you just did? In all likelihood your chin went to your chest and your neck curved into a C-shape. That’s really bad for your neck, said Bang. “There’s 12-15 pounds of weight in the human head. The further the head is away from our shoulders looking down at our smartphones, [the more it] strains the muscles. The bones and the discs start to mash together and you get pain.” This goes for all handheld electronics, like iPads. To save your neck, prop up your arms so you’re looking at your phone straight on. If you’re using an e-reader in bed, hold it up on your bent knees instead of down on your lap.

5. Don’t cross your legs

This is going to be a hard one. If you sit at a desk all day, make sure your feet are parallel and planted firmly on the ground, says Rosinsky. If your feet don’t reach the ground, use a box or foot rest to prop them up. This will reduce pressure on your lower back. Also remember to raise your computer screen so it’s at eye level to limit neck strain.

6. Sit up straight

When your grandmother scolded you about slouching, she was doing more than trying to make you look better. She was likely saving you from a backache. “Sit up on your sit bones, not back on the sacrum,” says Rosinsky, referring to the “fleshier” part of your tush. Think about the curve in your lower back and try to preserve it as you sit. “And whatever you’re working on, your keyboard and your computer screen should be square with your body.” So don’t put your laptop on your lap and hunch over it. You’re much better off putting it on a table.

7. Get up and move

Too much time spent in any one position — sitting or standing — can trigger back pain. The more active you are, the more you stretch out your muscles and get your body accustomed to physical activity so you're the less likely to suffer pain, Bang explained. “You need to eat well, drink well and move well,” he says. “If you get too sedentary you will have more pain.”

All of these strategies can help you stave off pain, but chiropractors also recommend regular adjustments that can help keep the spine aligned, the nervous system functioning properly and reduce the risk of recurring pain. When the situation allows, “seeing your chiropractor on a regular basis, whether you’re in pain or not, will help you maintain your balance and your range of motion,” Bang said.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.