Our definitive expert guide on how to improve our spinal health while working from home
15th Oct 2020
The lockdown happened so fast in March that very few of us had chance to adequately “spine-proof” our home-working spaces. Now as many of us prepare to work at home long term, our round-up of expert advice for your spinal health, couldn’t come at a better time
Most of us are still working from our makeshift offices, ie the kitchen table and arm-free dining chairs that were only ever intended for mealtimes – and our necks and backs are aching as a result.
Throw in pounding away on a laptop for hours on end and you’ve probably got eye strain and Carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms. So you buy a laptop stand and a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard… and you’re still in bits. What’s a home-worker to do? We ask the experts, including a chiropractor, a physical therapist, a pilates instructor and a strength and mobility coach.
Benjamin Martin, chiropractor
Dr Martin has been transforming spines for 19 years and runs Optimal Chiropractic in Macroom, Co Cork, as well as public-speaking on health and wellness. He is self-isolating from his home in Ballincollig. www.optimalchiro.ie
How would you describe your typical client?
I’ve a huge variety, from athletes, pregnancy and paediatrics to physical workers, such as tradespeople. Commonly these days are sedentary desk workers but our largest demographic are nurses and carers.
This is a profession that gives so much to others but are not very well looked after themselves. They do long stressful shifts, are on their feet most of the time with very few breaks, and some can have very physical roles too.
What does a chiropractor do?
As chiropractors, our aim is to encourage the body’s natural ability to heal by removing any interference along the nerves that may hinder communication between the brain and the cells, organs and tissues of the body. We do this by gently adjusting the spine back into its proper alignment thus removing the interference.
Which areas of the back are most vulnerable to unsuitable workspaces?
You increase the pressure on your lower back by 99 per cent when you sit down vs when you stand, so low back pain is very common for desk workers. Similarly, increased neck and shoulder tension is common, as we sit at a computer, potentially hunched forwards, for hours on end. The human head weighs up to 12 pounds, so the pressure on our neck and shoulders increases significantly if we sit with poor posture and support.
In terms of tech and furniture, what should we be investing in to help “spine-proof” our WFH environment?
Elevate your computer screen. Most people are working from laptops at home so this needs to be raised, either with a stand or stack of books. Definitely invest in a wireless keyboard and mouse so you basically only have to use the screen component of the laptop.
If you’re going to be spending a lot of time on the phone look at headphones and mic so you don’t need to hold a phone up. A good chair setup is also important.
You can purchase portable lumbar supports for your chair. These can range from mesh to memory foam products. Worst case scenario, roll up a towel to support your low back.
What targeted exercises would you recommend for helping stay limber?
You want to move from your desk at least once an hour. I have attached a few YouTube videos that I have done showing some simple stretches.
One of the most essential muscles to stretch are the hamstrings and hip flexors. The longer we sit the more they contract, overwork and pull on the pelvis.
How have you adapted your business since the lockdown?
We have about 700 active clients on our books, who are itching to get started again. Unfortunately, apart from creating social media content for them to implement at home, there is not much more we can do.
I do work projects in the morning while my wife schools our five-year-old daughter – school work and polytunnel/gardening – then we swap after lunch and I get to play and cook with her. I have enjoyed the extra time with our daughter, but after watching Descendants countless times I am definitely ready to get out of the house!
What impact do you think this period of working from home will have on your business in the short and long-term?
We have a large list of people already looking for first refusal on appointments when we reopen, so I would imagine there will be a mixed bag with respect to who is comfortable leaving home.
I think some people just want to be allowed to get on with their lives and businesses, and others are still very apprehensive of leaving the safety of their homes.
Dylan Crowe, physical therapist & dry needler
Co-founder of Complete Fitness on Dublin’s Pembroke Street – and a physical therapist for 21 years – Dylan Crowe is currently working online and home schooling three children. www.completefitness.ie
How would you describe your typical client?
I’m lucky to have treated a variety of people throughout my career, but my client base are predominantly sedentary workers in Dublin city centre. They have a variety of chronic musculoskeletal back pain from years of sitting for long hours staring at screens.
I also do on-site workstation assessments, which gives me an amazing opportunity to work with an array of different professionals and corporate companies.
How does physical therapy compare to physiotherapy, osteopathy and chiropractors?
There are many clinical therapies in Ireland that offer solutions to people with back pain.
I am qualified physical therapist, which uses a hands-on approach coupled with exercise therapy when treating back pain.
The main objective of a physical therapist is to find the actual cause of your back pain. For example, do you exercise? What type of exercise and to what intensity? How do you sit in your chair? Is your desk too high or too low? Is your monitor angled at the right height and at the right distance from your body? Do you use a laptop or a desktop monitor when you work from home or in the office?
The devil is in the detail, so finding answers to these questions are vital for painting a picture of a client’s overall lifestyle. Once a physical therapist has all the information, the cause of the client’s pain can be resolved.
Which area(s) of the back are most vulnerable to unsuitable desks and chairs and what are the most common symptoms as a consequence?
Working from home when it hasn’t been setup correctly can be hazardous for your health and your spine. The stress of working from home and minding small children can also contribute to back pain. Office workers tend to get pain in the lower back, between the shoulder blades, neck and shoulders.
I recently had a client contact me complaining that she was working from home and using a kitchen table and chair. She was home-schooling two small children, which required a lot of lifting and attention and had developed a lot of pain in her neck and numbness in her hands. She was very worried.
During a telephone call we concluded that she wasn’t sitting in her chair correctly and using her laptop caused her head to slump forward while staring at the screen. This created an awful lot of tension in neck and shoulders, and created nerve compression coming from her neck down to her hands, which caused the numbness.
I recommended she purchase a home office desk online and a relatively cheap ergonomic chair. Her home office was then optimised, which decreased the neck pain dramatically and over the course of ten days, the numbness in her hands completely disappeared.
If we have the funds, what should we be investing in to help “spine-proof” our WFH environment?
This is a question I am getting asked an awful lot throughout this quarantine period. Most people have been taken by surprise and haven’t had time to set up a proper work station at home so here are a few things that can really help with preventing back pain.
If you don’t have a ready-made lower back support in your chair, roll up a large bath towel and place it at the base of your lower back when sitting on the chair. This will create a lumbar spine (lower back) support. When your lumbar spine is supported, the rest of your spine will remain relatively relaxed and tension free.
The next thing to do is ensure that you are sitting in close to your table/desk. This will prevent slouching or forward tilting movement of your upper body. If you don’t have a proper PC monitor and are using a laptop but don’t have access to a laptop raiser, you can raise the back of your laptop by placing a large book or Yellow Pages at the back, which will create an angle and elevate the monitor of your laptop. With your screen raised you are less likely to suffer from neck and back pain.
Optimising the kitchen table or your desk in the attic is also key. I recommend to most of my clients that they purchase a foot rest, which ensures they plant their feet properly, allowing their spine to push back into their chair. It also prevents them from crossing their legs.
What targeted exercises and/or stretches would you recommend?
If you’re not used to regular exercise and suffer with some type of chronic pain, I wouldn’t recommend jumping into any high intensity exercise plan. Most likely you will have setbacks and lose the motivation to continue.
The most important thing to do when working from home is to get up every 20 minutes and move around. Staring at a screen for hours on end can have serious implications on your health and your back. Movement is what you need for oiling your joints and increasing the blood flow around your body. That doesn’t mean doing 200 press-ups a day. Simply getting up from the table or desk and going up and down the stairs a few times can have fantastic benefits.
If you were a regular gym goer and enjoyed going to classes, there are many options for you to train in the comfort of your own home. Most personal trainers have gone online now and offer an amazing variety of exercise classes such as pilates, yoga, strength and conditioning, and HIIT classes.
If you’re extremely busy working and caring for children at home then I suggest the following exercise routine that can be done throughout the day (not all at once). These exercises will keep you mobile and strong.
Week 1 – Every day ten reps of each exercise: burpees, bodyweight squats, press-ups, walking lunges, crunches
Week 2 – Add five reps to each exercise each week until you are allowed go back to work
Additionally you can target muscles that tend to tighten when you’re sitting at your workstation, such as stretching the muscles that tend to shorten, such as your chest (pecs), neck muscles and hip flexors.
How would you describe dry needling and how it reaches places that physio can’t, figuratively speaking?
I recently completed my thesis on the “Effectiveness of Dry Needling” because, like all therapeutic modalities, there is mixed scientific evidence determining whether dry needling is beneficial for easing pain in the body.
I’ve been practicing dry needling now for over 13 years, and the general consensus is that it creates a physiological/chemical effect when the needle is inserted into an area of pain. This can have a therapeutic effect with a decrease in pain symptoms.
For office workers, it’s specifically helpful for treating pain in your lower back and around your neck and shoulders. In some cases it has no effect at all – but if you’re in pain and you need some type of relief, it’s definitely worth trying.
How have you adapted your business since the lockdown?
Before Covid-19, I ran a busy clinic in the heart of Dublin 2. A lot has changed very quickly and I’ve had to re-evaluate how I work during the time of quarantine. Luckily I have a great client base who contacted me directly, requiring online treatment regarding their back pain and various injuries.
I am now doing lot of online workstation assessments for people working from home. This is something I really love to do and enjoy using my creative brain in finding the solutions to optimise client’s makeshift home offices.
What impact do you think this extensive period of working from home will have on your business – and the nation’s posture?
I research a lot of psychology-based pain science, trying to greater understand what actually causes pain. The evidence suggests that one of the main causes of pain in your body is stress.
Pain can be exacerbated when there are psychological stresses, either internal or external, in the body. At the moment there are a lot of changes with people suddenly having to work from home, plus the added stresses of entertaining and home-schooling your children.
A lot of clients have enjoyed the interactive online clinical assessments that I’m doing at the moment, but many have said they miss the hands-on approach to relieving symptoms of back pain. Being optimistic, I think when things settle down and return to relative normality I will be extremely busy with clients returning back to the clinic.
Audrey O’Connor, pilates instructor and personal trainer
Dingle born, Dublin based O’Connor, aka Audrey Pilates, has been a pilates instructor for seven years, and is also a personal trainer and owner of Aerfitness. www.audspilates.com
Where are you self-isolating from?
I’m currently confined to a 5km radius around my Rathmines home, and have converted the living room into an online pilates studio. This involved some shuffling of furniture and a crash course in the technology to enable broadcasts, which was challenging, as tech isn’t my forte.
A great deal has to go on behind the scenes to put the classes together, from the website, to the booking system, and managing everything in between. It’s been a steep learning curve, but I’m in good shape at this stage.
How would you describe your typical client?
A good, but challenging question. I couldn’t say that I have a ’typical’ client, although I do have specialisations in the field of athletic conditioning and mobility, corporate wellness, and spinal and pelvic floor health. My class attendees vary: men and women, young, middle-age and older folks.
Many of my clients have been recommended to do pilates for back and neck issues, tight hips, weak cores and/or recovering from injury. Many of my clients sit at their desks all day and their body is craving mobility, stretching and strengthening.
Clients come to the mat curious about pilates and they begin to notice a difference in their physical wellbeing. They stay because they want to develop a pilates practice and reap the mental and physical rewards.
Which areas of the back are most vulnerable to unsuitable workspaces and what are the most common symptoms as a result?
The longer you are sitting down at your desk the more likely you are to allow your posture to slump. Slouching and rounding can cause the spinal ligaments to overstretch past their limits and can strain the spinal discs of the thoracic and lumbar regions. This often results in increased strain of the outer annulus of the disc and can increase disc bulging and disc pressures.
In addition, while sitting, we are often working on a computer or writing at desks that result in a forward head position, a rounded shoulder posture or kyphosis [“roundback”]. I would recommend avoiding rounding forward in the office chair or wherever you are working from at the moment, as this places extra stress on the structures in the lower back, and in particular, on the lumbar discs.
In terms of tech, furniture and fitness aids, what should we be investing in to help “spine-proof” our WFH environment?
My number one recommendation is to invest in a good chair. It looks like we might be working from home more frequently from now on and a good setup will go a long way to maintaining good spinal health and posture.
In addition to a good office chair, a desk that works with the chair in terms of ergonomics is key. Ensure that it’s at elbow height, and have an elevated monitor to allow for forward focus, to keep your head aligned and your cervical spine in alignment. The cream of the ergonomic chair crop is the Herman Miller Aeron Office Chair or for tighter budgets, the Energi-24 Ergonomic Office Chair is also a good buy.
Standing desks are also an option, budget permitting, which allow for alternating between sitting and standing. It is not advisable to go from sitting all day to standing all day, as this may cause extra problems, but standing for short intermittent periods aids circulation and mental health benefits as well as physical.
Invest in a large exercise ball and sit on it for half an hour or longer while you work. This will engage all the muscles in the back, legs, core and glutes, to stay balanced and upright. Your posture and core, will thank you for this new way of sitting at your desk. Check out Gymnic FitBall Exercise Balls.
What targeted exercises would you recommend for staying limber at home? Even when I used to work as a quantity surveyor, I used the Pomodoro Technique, which consists of working in 25 minute bursts interspersed with five minute breaks, to check in with yourself and walk around and stretch your legs.
Other exercises and stretches I would recommend:
Seated breath-work to decompress and stay grounded at your desk:
- Inhale deeply through the nose for a count of four and fill the lungs with air. Pause for a moment. Exhale out through the mouth for a count of four. Pause at the bottom of the breath. Repeat this breath pattern for one minute
- Combine the breathwork with an ear to shoulder movement
- Breathe in, pause and as you exhale, drop your right ear to your right shoulder and find a gentle stretch
- Return to centre and repeat on the other side
Seated Cat/Cow exercises at your desk:
- Sit on your chair away from the desk
- Sit at the edge of your chair with feet hip distance apart and both hands on the knees
- Inhale to cow pose – lift the chin, lift the chest, keeping it broad across collarbone and gaze upwards
- Exhale to cat pose, round through the spine, tuck the chin, gaze inwards and release the neck
- Repeat for a few minutes, maybe even close the eyes and bring your attention inwards
Seated twist at chair:
- Sit upright on your chair. Bring the right arm across the body and hold onto the left hand side of your chair
- Inhale to find space and lengthen the spine, exhale to twist to your left and use your left arm on the chair as leverage
- Hold this space for an inhalation and an exhalation
- Inhale back to centre and repeat the twist on the other side
- Repeat this cycle five times
Lateral lean seated stretch:
- Seated upright, clasp your fingers behind your head without straining the neck
- Keeping your feet grounded on the floor, turn your head to look at your left elbow
- Maintaining this position, lean your torso to the right without bending forward or backwards
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side
How have you adapted your business since the lockdown?
The majority of my clients pre-lockdown were corporate clients – Google, the Central Bank and Iconic Offices – and they’ve all moved online. They either have private corporate classes with me or they book on to my public online classes.
I love to see clients from my hometown of Dingle adapting to online classes, and also people all over the country who I’ve never met and are now getting the opportunity to practice with me, when it otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible.
At the moment my days are filled with my public classes, corporates and sports team sessions, and a few events and workshops into the mix. It’s giving me the opportunity to connect with people I’ve never reached before. Moving to online teaching has opened the door to a far more dispersed audience.
What impact do you think this nationwide, extensive period of working from home will have on your business – more or less cranky bodies to fix?
It will change people’s habitual patterns, as they have less space to move in. Unless people continue their movement routines – take breaks from their desks and get out in the fresh air – then yes, there will be a lot more kyphotic postures and back issues coming in to be rehabilitated.
Online pilates classes provide a space to move away from the desk, stay connected with your own body, and with other people. Staying connected is key to coming out of quarantine in good shape, both physically and mentally.
Rob Gallagher, strength and mobility coach
Pre-lockdown, Gallagher was working from a studio in Metropoint Business Park in Swords and is now self-isolating at home in Sutton. He has been practicing as a mobility coach for six years, working mostly with active sportspeople. www.movement101.com
How would you describe your work?
Movement and training is the most potent way to improve how we move. While we coach techniques to our clients in our studio, what they do and how they move between sessions is of utmost importance.
Having suffered with back pain and tried multiple manual therapies, I am of the opinion that people need to train and take ownership of their bodies rather than pay someone to “fix” them in a treatment room. Of course, manual therapy has its place. But movement, training and muscular contractions, is what will make the greatest difference in my view.
Which area of the back are most vulnerable to unsuitable workspaces?
The area of your spine that you move the least will be the weakest and most vulnerable. Your spine needs movement to stay healthy. Your natural movement instinct will kick in when you’ve been sitting for a long time; you will instinctively move. So don’t wait for this demand from your body: be pro-active and twist your spine or neck. You are in charge of how often you move your spine.
The problem with humans sitting at desks is a lack of movement. Don’t expect to address a lack of movement issue with an expensive chair or desk.
Try changing positions. Sit on the floor with your laptop. This won’t be as comfortable as an expensive chair, so you will shift position regularly, ie you will move more. There is no “perfect” sitting posture. Take micro movement breaks throughout your day instead, using contextual cue to remind yourself, ie before work, mid-morning coffee, after lunch etc.
What targeted exercises do you recommend for helping stay limber at home?
I prescribe a full range of controlled spinal flexion and extensions to do daily. Spine segmentation in the quadruped position is the one drill I teach all my clients to do. I also prescribe spine rotation drills, particularly for the neck.
Looking straight ahead at a screen all day, without actively moving your neck in other planes of motion will lead to issues. “North South East West” is a simple neck drill, ie look up, down, left and right regularly, in pain-free ranges of motion.
How have you adapted your business since the lockdown?
We have an online program “Mobile 4 Life,” which has close to 2,000 members of which more than 1,500 are on our highly interactive private Facebook group. We also coach approximately 25 private coaching clients. Some are professional athletes, others simply want to train and move better. We have several online options, too.
What impact do you think this extensive period of working from home will have on the nation’s mobility?
We are very lucky in that a lot of what we do is online. With tutorials and live Zoom calls, we can help our clients and coach them from home so I actually see this as a massive opportunity for people to ingrain a healthy daily movement habit.
Now that people aren’t rushing out the door in the morning, they can spend 5-10 minutes in the morning to move their spine, hips, shoulders, etc before they start work. I’ve been doing a 15-minute live movement session every morning on my Instagram page, with close to a thousand people joining in. So, no excuses. Use the time to move your spine.
Read more: 7 ergonomic gadgets to make your work-from-home office a lot more comfortable
Read more: 7 restorative stretches for people who sit all day
Read more: How are six of Ireland’s leading wellness experts keeping their head right now?
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