As an avid runner, swimmer, and cyclist for about 30 years, I’ve suffered my share of injuries. But it was another activity that caused excruciating pain to erupt in my back and left leg six weeks ago, a throbbing and tingling so severe that I’m still on prescription painkillers and a muscle relaxant.
Working from home for a year.
Like millions of other people fortunate enough to be able to do their jobs remotely during the pandemic, I’ve spent 13 months hunched over a laptop for hours without the usual breaks you get at the office and while commuting. As a biotech reporter, I’ve covered the development, testing, and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. And like those of many other folks working from home, my “office” in Providence has been less than ideal ergonomically: an unpadded dining room chair at a bridge table set up in my 21-year-old daughter’s old bedroom.
Now I’m paying the price. An MRI last month showed three disks protruding in my lower spine, two of them pinching the sciatic nerve that runs down my left leg to my foot. The diagnosis sounded like something you might receive after getting injured in a car crash. But my orthopedist and physical therapist said the vertebrae-cushioning disks most likely bulged in part from something more prosaic: crummy posture at my poorly designed makeshift workstation.
I’m hardly the only one hurting. Physical therapists in Massachusetts and Rhode Island told me that although business plunged during the lockdown in the first half of 2020, they soon saw a surge of patients complaining about head, neck, shoulder, and back pain linked to ergonomically unsound home office setups.
“Beds and couches have become workstations,” said Don Levine, cofounder of Pappas OPT Physical, Sports and Hand Therapy in Middletown, R.I. “They put a lot of stress on the low back and neck. Even working at the dining room table can cause issues, as hard surfaces and poor posture will increase the pressure on structures in the back.”
Bob Beese knows that all too well. The 51-year-old financial planner in Portsmouth, R.I., went to Levine in the fall, complaining of pain in his left shoulder. The physical therapist asked where he worked at home.
Beese said he was spending 14-hour days at a laptop on his dining room table. He was sitting on a low unpadded chair that caused him to angle his hands upward. He was slouching forward to look at the screen, instead of looking at a monitor positioned at eye level on his desk at the office. And he seldom got up to stretch.
Levine encouraged him to move to a taller padded chair in the kitchen and work at the table there until he returned to the office in January. He also urged Beese to sit up straight and regularly perform specific exercises and stretches, which relieved the pain.
“I felt like an idiot,” Beese said of how he got injured. “You’re thinking it’s going to be from being out playing basketball in the driveway with the kids. You don’t expect it to be from just sitting there.”
The surge in injuries largely reflects how quickly many of us set up home offices during the lockdown, according to physical therapists. Jessica Douglas, director of clinical operations at Joint Ventures Physical Therapy and Fitness, said 70 to 80 percent of the patients at the company’s 10 Massachusetts clinics have discomfort traceable partly to workstations configured in March 2020 and left in place.
“What worked short-term for the first week or two was something people thought would be OK for months and now a year of working from home,” Douglas said. “People’s bodies can’t compensate for the postural issues.”
Douglas often has patients e-mail photographs of themselves working at home so she can suggest ways to improve their posture. She pins much of the blame on long-term use of laptops instead of the desktop computers patients had at the office.
Laptops are fine for brief stints, Douglas said, but not for the prolonged workdays many of us have had during the pandemic; if you sit with your arms bent at the proper 90-degree angle at a laptop, she explained, the screen is too low for your head and you invariably lean forward. Every inch your earlobe moves in front of your shoulder, she said, adds 10 pounds of pressure to your neck and spine.
I e-mailed Douglas a photograph my wife took of me working at home on a breaking news story shortly after I awakened in March 2020. This was when the card table and dining room chair were in our bedroom, before I moved it to my daughter’s old room. Douglas laughed.
“I want to fix so many things,” she said. Not only was I hunched over, she said, I had my legs twisted to the side. “That’s the most common way people injure their disks ― forward bending in combination with a twisting motion.”
Douglas recommends that people working at laptops attach a separate keyboard and a monitor that they can raise to eye level. They should also sit in a chair with good lumbar support ― an unpadded dining room chair doesn’t cut it ― and make sure their feet lie flat on the floor or on a footrest.
Marie Figueroa, a doctor of physical therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital in Waltham, said many recent patients complain of pain that came out of nowhere. But they described home office setups bound to cause trouble: sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter, slouching on the sofa with the laptop on their thighs, tapping on the computer while lying in bed.
One patient of Figueroa’s had such debilitating back pain while working that she couldn’t sit or stand. The woman lay on her back on the floor, placed the laptop on her abdomen and propped her head up on pillows to peer at the screen.
“I couldn’t believe how she was positioning herself,” Figueroa said. She told the patient, “You’re trying to help your back, but you’re going to hurt your neck.”
Actually, it didn’t sound all that crazy. Sitting and standing aggravated my sciatica so much that I too flirted with going prone. But I came to my senses. After getting up every night to take a hot shower because of throbbing pain, I went on medical leave. I received prescriptions for pain relievers and a muscle relaxer and began seeing a physical therapist twice a week.
Some patients use a standup desk to maintain proper posture, and that’s fine, said several physical therapists. But no ergonomically sound position is healthy if you stay frozen for hours.
Levine, the physical therapist in Rhode Island who treated Beese, recommends that patients set a timer so they remember to take breaks and walk around. People forget that they used to leave their desks at the office for a cup of coffee or to talk to co-workers.
“When you’re [working] at home, your day can start the minute you wake up to when you go to bed,” Levine said.
Levine is even treating high school students with pain caused by poor posture in online classes. “We’re seeing things we shouldn’t see until later adulthood with some of these kids that are doing their classes from bed or the couch,” he said.
As for me, my pain has improved somewhat since I started physical therapy, practicing stretches at home and taking medication. I’ve borrowed a desk that I can use sitting and standing and found an adjustable chair. I also got a separate monitor and keyboard. And I’ve promised myself to take breaks.
The Globe newsroom isn’t expected to reopen until later this year, so I’ve got at least several more months of working from home.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.