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Working from home is breaking our bodies, physical therapists say

Will we ever get back to the office?
Will we ever get back to the office? 08:15

Physical therapist Deanie Barth always keeps a full schedule, but the pandemic has added a new crop of patients to her roster of New York City clients: Professionals with neck and back aches and other pains arising from hours spent sitting at makeshift work-from-home stations. 

Indeed, corporations have sent their workers home from offices, but in most cases, coveted pieces of ergonomic office furniture — think $1,000 Herman Miller chairs and adjustable standing desks— remain in the emptied spaces, as employees continue to work from home in bed, on couches or sitting hunched in front of dressers and countertops.

"People are setting up their home offices wherever they can, including at dining room tables," Barth, who co-owns Centurion Physical Therapy in midtown Manhattan, told CBS MoneyWatch.

Take for example a family of four with two desk-bound parents and a pair of kids in remote school, all competing for workspace in a New York City apartment. 

"So many times people are coming in saying they are sitting semi-reclined with a laptop on a couch," Barth said.

The physical consequences of this kind of bad posture include spinal disk issues and back and neck strains, she added. Even non-work activities like longer-than-usual walks and high-intensity workouts are doing more damage to our bodies than we may realize. 

Americans are burned out on working from home 01:39

Working from home has taken a particular toll on the bodies of mothers who simultaneously work and supervise young children learning from home. One working mom recently visited Barth's practice with persistent neck pain. 

The culprit? "It was stemming from the fact that she was at one station and her children were behind her and she was constantly turning around to check on them," Barth said. "They are literally turning their heads over their shoulders doing their own work while trying to look at their kids at the same time."

Physical therapists outline some of the most common pandemic-related habits and their physical ramifications. They also offer tips to ease symptoms.

Bad habit: You're not pretending you're at the office

Physical therapists' advice to homebound employees starts with acting like you're at the office: 

  • Create a workstation that is dedicated exclusively to work. 

"Find a private, quiet and secure place away from the flow of activity at home to decrease distractions and increase one's ability to focus. And if you have kids, make it someplace that is not in the middle of whatever is going on," said Tamar Amitay, founder and principal of Thrive Integrated Physical Therapy in downtown Manhattan.   

  • Keep your eyes level with the top of your web browser to achieve good neck positioning. Keep your elbows at 90 degrees, wrists in a neutral position and your shoulders relaxed to avoid tightness across the chest. An external mouse, versus a touchpad can also help relieve excess strain on the arms and wrists, Amitay said. 
  • Parents can avoid other kinds of household-based injuries by refraining from holding children on their hips for prolonged periods of time and avoiding bending over at the hip to pick up laundry or children.

You've gone from multiple large screens to a laptop

Jessica Schwartz, a physical therapist and American Physical Therapy Association spokesperson, said many of her clients who work in law, finance and media are having to adapt from working with multiple, large computer monitors to handling all their programs and data on one much smaller screen, like a laptop, tablet or smart phone. 

"They were used to having two or three screens on their desk and they were sent home with laptops," Schwartz said. 

The symptoms Schwartz most commonly sees in these patients include lower back pain, cervical neck pain, and elbow and wrist problems. Recommended fixes include:

  • In addition to seeking treatment, use a real office chair with added lumbar support (such as a foam cushion, pillow or towel), and use a footrest.
  • Keep your legs and hips bent at 90-degree angles, and keep your back straight and shoulders over your hips, Schwartz said. 
  • If you need glasses, wear them, so that you're not squinting or having to crane your neck to see what's on your laptop screen.  

Marathon work sessions

Michael Conlon, owner of Finish Line Physical Therapy, which specializes in treating competitive endurance athletes, said his marathoners — who no longer have races to train for — have been replaced by work-from-home patients logging up to 10 or 12 hours a day on the job, versus the usual seven or eight.

"It's been a difficult year for our business with no one training for races right now, but we are seeing more of the work-from-home client with neck and lower back pain," Conlon said. 

Studies show that with little-to-no distinction between the home and office, employees are working longer days. At the same time, commutes have been eliminated and valuable built-in daily exercise, such as climbing subway steps or walking to lunch, has disappeared.

Millions of Americans continue working from home even as states begin to reopen 02:15

"Clinical stress, anxiety, depression also manifests itself physiologically — and it's real. And we are seeing a lot of that," Barth, the co-owner of Centurion said, citing physical manifestations like spinal disk issues and thoracic outlet syndrome — compression of the nerves between the collarbone and first rib. 

Working professionals are also forgetting to take breaks, and that can take a heavy toll on both the mind and body. 

  • For better physical and mental well-being, schedule movement breaks every hour — even if it's just to get up and go to the kitchen or bathroom. 
  • Consider a standing desk to mitigate musculoskeletal issues

Love those long walks? They may be bad for you 

Even lengthy walks — a popular pandemic past time — can wear down the body's knees and hips, if longer excursions are not complemented by core and pelvic stability strength-training exercises, like planks, bridges and clamshells, which are often incorporated into yoga and pilates routines and require only an exercise mat. 

Variety is important, and patients who focus on just one form of exercise — like walking, running or biking — can develop muscle imbalances and overuse injuries. 

The bottom line? Don't rely exclusively on walking for exercise. 

"It's great for mind, but people who lack core and pelvic stability are ending up with knee problems and hip bursitis when it's their only form of exercise," Barth said. 

Tone down those online workouts 

When gyms closed, fitness enthusiasts turned to online workouts, including high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes they could stream from their homes. However, too much or physically punishing exercise can also be bad for the body, particularly if no one is around to check your form. 

"Some people don't think they are working out unless they're working to their max, so because they have more time, instead of once or twice a week, they are taking HIIT classes three to four times a week and it's too much," Conlon said. 

  • Conlon recommends limiting the number of high-intensity workouts to just one or two per week or toning down the effort level. 
  • Also allot time to warm up and stretch before classes start, and cool down and stretch again once they end. 

"A new wave" of post-operative clients

After a slow year, the vaccine rollout has accelerated everyday athletes' return to their physical therapists' offices, practice owners report. 

"There is a lot of new business because people are getting vaccinated and are less fearful about coming in because our entire office is vaccinated," Barth said. 

Also coming in: A new wave of post-operative patients whose elective medical and surgical procedures were postponed because of the pandemic. They are starting to book appointments with physical therapists, seeking recovery from procedures like hernia removal or knee and hip replacements.

Conlon of Finish Line expects a springtime surge. "We expect to see a significant increase in our patient population come late spring-early summer," he said. 

Amitay of Thrive is back to seeing about 75% of her normal patient volume and expects this upward trend to continue. "We are starting to see that it's ticking up in a good way," she said. "I think it's going to come back stronger."

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