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5 Ways to banish working from home backache

Is working from home (WFH) a pain in the neck (and back, and shoulders)? An ergonomics expert has advice that will keep you productive and pain-free.

10 July 2023 | By Robyn MacLarty

Anyone who has suffered from back pain knows it’s a beast that can transform even the most resilient among us into a groaning mess of agony. What’s more: those of us who work from home may be more susceptible to aches and pains that range from mere tension or stiffness, all the way through to the searing pain of a pinched nerve or the horrors of a full-on muscle spasm. Why? Most companies make sure to implement sound ergonomic practices in their offices, which helps to keep aches and injuries to a minimum. WFH? Not so much.

“Doing the same thing incorrectly day after day leads to some muscles in our back shortening and others lengthening,” says Johannesburg-based ergonomist Hayden Searle of ErgoTherapy.co.za. “This creates imbalances in our posture and in how we move.”

If left unaddressed, an incorrectly configured seating arrangement can lead to faster ageing of the discs between the spinal bones, says Searle. “The discs in our backs are more prone to bulging or rupturing when they age. Our nerves get compressed when that happens, leading to a lot of pain.” Ouch.

If you invest in one piece of ergonomically sound equipment at home, Searle recommends an ergonomically designed chair, which can go a long way towards reducing back strain. If, however, your budget doesn’t stretch that far, there is still plenty you can do to support you back. Here are Searle’s top tips:

1.    Move!

Moving helps nutrients get to their destination, including to the discs in our backs and to our muscles. Get up and move as often as you can, at least every hour or 30-45 mins if possible.

2.    Sit right

Sit as far back into your chair as possible so that your back is resting on the backrest. You could also use a firm pillow or rolled-up towel to further support the curve of your lower back. Back supports such as lumbar support cushions can be attached to a chair to help you get the support you need.

3.    Support your arms

This takes strain away from your neck and upper back. It also makes slouching forwards less likely, which protects your lower back. If your chair doesn’t have height-adjustable armrests, your desk is your best friend. Sit as close to your desk as you can and rest your arms on your desk. If you can, raise your chair so that your arms aren’t pushed sideways when you do this.

4.    Keep your feet on the ground

Rest your feet firmly on either the floor or a footrest. Even slightly floating feet can contribute to lower back and leg pain. The goal is to get your knees to the same level or slightly lower than your hips. If your feet are firmly on the floor once your chair is set up, you don’t need a footrest. For those who do, you could purchase a footrest or simply use a box or wooden block.

5.    Adjust your screen

Raise or lower your monitor or laptop screen so that the top of the monitor is level with your eyes when you are looking straight ahead. The screen must not be higher than this or as low as a laptop. Raising a laptop like this will require a stand or box, as well as a separate keyboard and mouse so that you don’t need to lift your arms all day to work.

While adjusting your workspace is your best bet to minimise the risk of back pain in the future, if you’re suffering right now, these products can help with muscle and joint pain relief:

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