For many people, working from home — either full time or part time — is a long-term reality during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. If you’re reading this from your home office, take a look around you. Is your “office” actually a couch? The kitchen table? Whatever space was available for what you thought would be temporary?
Maybe you’re even starting to experience pain in the back, neck or wrists. If working from home is in your foreseeable future, it’s not too late to set up an ergonomic workspace.
Fix your space
Even though that couch of yours is usually pretty comfortable, it could be one of many reasons you’re experiencing or at risk for pain. Here are some common missteps when working from home:
- Sitting on a couch, recliner or bed. You’re not getting lower back support and are at risk for poor posture.
- Resting your laptop on your lap. This increases forward head posture and neck strain.
- Working at a kitchen table or countertop. These are typically higher surfaces than a desk would be in an office. A higher typing surface elevates your shoulders and causes upper back or neck pain.
- Your keyboard is placed incorrectly or you’re using only your laptop’s keyboard. Keyboard placement affects how the wrists are positioned. If your wrists are bent too much one way or the other, this puts unnecessary pressure on the carpal canal and increases your risk for carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Poor lighting. If you tend to work later into the evening and the lighting is poor, you’re setting yourself up for increased eye strain.
A few simple fixes could eliminate the positions causing you pain or putting you at risk:
- Purchase a wireless keyboard and mouse for your laptop. Then place your laptop on a stack of books or shoebox to bring the top of the monitor to or just below eye level, as our natural gaze is slightly downward.
- Sit correctly. Sit with your feet flat, supported with knees and hips at 90 to 120 degrees.
- Relax your shoulders. Both shoulders should be in a relaxed position with elbows bent at 60 to 90 degrees.
- Check your wrists. The wrists should be in a neutral, straight position when typing.
- Adjust your monitor. Again, the top of the monitor should be just below eye level with your head in a neutral position.
- Change positions frequently. If it’s not possible to make a space that fits you, keep changing positions. Set a timer for every 20 minutes — stand up, stretch and change positions for 30 seconds.
Carpal tunnel syndrome and other risks
As an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist, my expertise is in the shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands. Common disorders I see include:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome. This can be caused when the wrist is held in a bent position — either up or to the side — or when there’s prolonged pressure to the wrist or palm.
- Cubital tunnel syndrome. This can happen when the elbow rests heavily on an armrest or is held too much in flexion (forearm is moved toward your body).
- Lateral epicondylitis. This occurs when the mouse is positioned too far away and the wrist is held in extension (bent backward).
- Tendonitis. This condition is inflammation or irritation of a tendon most common around shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees and heels.
Carpal tunnel syndrome may be the most widely known of these disorders. If left untreated, the symptoms like numbness and tingling will worsen and pain will increase. Eventually, the muscle that pulls the thumb around to grasp or touch the tip of the little finger will lose its strength. The longer the pressure to the median nerve, the longer it will take to heal. In extreme cases, the damage to the nerve is irreversible.
If pain persists
If you’re experiencing hand, wrist, elbow or shoulder pain, don’t brush it off. If your pain persists for more than two weeks or is getting worse, it might be beneficial to see your provider and get a referral for hand therapy. If caught early, pain can often be resolved quickly and no further medical intervention will be needed.