Working From Home? Back In Agony? Here are some tips…

Working from home is a pain. Literally. Working from hard kitchen chairs, slouched on sofas, or shoved into a new ‘office’ (read: cupboard) means most of us are contorting into new physical positions. And oof, it hurts.

At the age of 37 I thought I’d be immune from this sort of muscular pain. (37 is still young, right?) Speaking with other people working from home it seems that everyone is getting the same symptoms: Creeping numbness in the lower back. Painful shoulders. Crooked necks.

No one should be surprised.

In an ideal world, we’d all work with perfect posture and glamour. But so few of us do it that I couldn’t even find a decent image of proper sitting! The closest I could get was the posture and glamour of this photo (although even she could do with having her monitor at eye level and tilting her head back):

In reality, most of us do a sort of hunch-over squat game like this:

Even though I knew that hunching, sloping, sitting on a useless chair and looking down at a laptop was doing damage, I still carried on! ‘Must keep working,’ I told myself as my muscles screamed, ‘Do not have time for pain. Will resolve after the pandemic.’

Naturally, the pandemic hasn’t gone away and neither did the pain. After ending up in near agony from sitting stupidly, something had to give.

The Techniques

For the past five weeks I have been experimenting with different techniques, some better than others. My back is now painless for the majority of the day. Some of the following techniques take time and some cost money. But if you do the whole lot, it helps a lot and if you can only do some of it, it should at least help a little.

If you’re only going to do ONE THING: skip to the end and do the Egoscue Method exercises. They are incredibly helpful and cost nothing. And do not think you can sit, still, on anything for 8 hours and all will be well. You still need to move and stretch regularly – but the below will help if you forget.

#1. Change Your Morning Routine

After two weeks of working at home, I would wake up every morning to an aching back. In part this is because my bed is rubbish. I had ordered a new one in February, but it is still Corona-delayed, and I’ve given up hope of it ever arriving. Two things in my morning routine are mitigating it.

Sworkit: I’ve used the Sworkit workout app every morning since 2017 and I swear by it. It’s super easy and basic. A voice tells you what to do every 30 seconds and there are videos of very ordinary-looking people doing very ordinary exercises. You decide the time you want for each workout. (Just 7 mins today, thanks). No one yells at you. No one forces you to share selfies. There’s loads of workout choices. Doing stretches, back strengthening, and kettlebell workouts have really helped me click into place in a morning.

Spikey Massage Ball: Life-changing! Looks like a dog toy, actually amazing. I’ve a green one that I writhe around on most mornings. I put it on the floor, lie on top of it (face-up, in pyjamas) and then rub over the bits of my neck and back which got clicky and tight overnight. By the time I’m done (about 3 minutes), there are dints on my body, but I feel much more relaxed and ready to go. Plus, if you’re working from home, who even sees the dots!

#2. Pimp Your (home-based) Work Station

Our offices have glorious large chairs and movable desks. At home, I don’t have the space or money for this. Sometimes I’m sat on a crappy kitchen chair; other times I’m on a £30 spinning chair. Here’s what I’ve hacked together to help:

Laptop raiser and a wireless keyboard: At the very least, if you are working on a laptop, try not to be looking down at it all day. Most basically, stick your laptop on a set of books and get a wireless keyboard and mouse which you can click away on at elbow level. I use a laptop raiser like this to get some inches (though if you’re taller and want more height, you might prefer this type) and then I use a wireless keyboard/mouse so I can keep my arms flat (all in, about a £50 solution). For a fancier approach, my partner has one of these contraptions and an extra monitor (his company stumped up ££ for a home set-up). If you want something of medium pricing (around £90) and which is adjustable so you can sit or stand, try this.

Lumbar cushion supportSitting all day in a bad chair means I am rolling my shoulder forward and my lower back is suffering. I therefore purchased a joyful squishy cushion that nestles into the lower back, which pushes the lower back forward, rolling the shoulders back, and pushing you into a shape that you know you should be sitting in. Admittedly, these cushions are the sort of thing your grandma has in her car, but, oh it feels so good. Since buying a lumbar cushion I now lean back in my chair — something I had almost forgotten was possible.

Under bum cushion supportOkay, we are deep deeeeeep in older person territory now, but these bum cushions are fantastic — especially if you’re a bit short, and one of the problems is reaching your computer at your desk when the chair is low. Working like a booster seat, it rolls you forward slightly and reduces pressure on the tail bone and spine, and it’s just glorious. (Also, you can move it around with you, I’m using mine on a dining room chair right now). I also cross my legs less when using it – which is quite important.

Contact Lenses: This sounds bizarre, but the pain in my back increases when I wear glasses rather than contact lenses. As I’m short-sighted, I can read the computer screen without glasses, and I prefer to do so because of the glare. However, the screen is a little fuzzy, so I end up leaning in more often to see. Wearing contact lenses stops this. I can see the screen without hunching and I’m not squinting if I have to look around the room for a notebook (or where I left my cup of tea). If you wear glasses and have back pain, try contact lenses if you have them. Sounds ridiculous, but might help.

#3. Change Your Night-time Routine

This is the most time-consuming part of the process, but it’s the bit which I think made the biggest difference, especially the Egoscue e-cises. If you’re seriously struggling, try them.

Egoscue Method: A friend suggested a series of exercises for my back pain known as Egoscue e-cises. There are several YouTube videos from Pete Egoscue who developed the methods in the nineties. Doing a series of these exercises for 30 minutes each night is a serious commitment makes a huge difference. Also, they’re really easy. Mostly just lying around in different positions. I do them before bed, in a semi-dark room, with nice candles. By the time it’s done, I’m tired enough to go straight to sleep and, more importantly, it massively reduced my pain.

For more info as to why it works, I heartily recommend Egoscue’s 1999 book Pain Free At Your PC. It looks like a terrible 90s health manual, but it’s oddly fascinating. Essentially, he argues that our musculoskeletal system was created to move our entire body. In an ideal world, we’d therefore use our full range of muscles and joints every day. Increasingly, we live in a world where only a few of our muscles are moving — e.g. our fingers and wrists. To facilitate this, our other muscles waste away and get us used to certain positions. Pain is the price we pay for not moving. It’s easily the best book I’ve ever read on human strength and it explains why lying around with your legs in the air is actually really good for you. (He also explains why the glasses/contact lens thing is real).

Support Pillow: Finally, if you’re a slide sleeper and struggle without support between your shoulder and neck, then supportive memory foam pillows are a good idea. There’s a deep ridge and a shallow ridge so you can figure out what suits best. As a restless sleeper, I can tell the nights when I’ve managed to keep my head on this pillow, as I wake up without pain in my neck. If I wriggle off the pillow, the ache comes back. (Any recommendations for how to stay more still when sleeping?!)

Things Other People Swear By

Acupressure Mats – A terrifying looking mat with bits of plastic that stick up like little ‘needles’. Lie on it and you’ll feel tingly and warm but, if you’re anything like me, after about 3 minutes you won’t feel anything at all. Personally I didn’t find it useful when I tried one but my partner uses his a lot (this one) and LOADS of people on social media have suggested them. Crowds aren’t usually wrong!

Foam Rollers – Again, I haven’t used these, but loads of people on social media swear by them. They work a bit like the spikey massage balls but cover a bigger area and you stretch out your muscles using all kinds of exercises. (YouTube is your friend here). Maybe worth a try if your dog is likely to steal the ball version!

And so, after 7 weeks of working from home I am finally in a position where, most of the time, my back isn’t sore, or is only a little niggly as opposed to agony. I hope you can feel the same too!

What have I missed? What do you do? Please tell me in the comments below!

(Note: I used relevant Amazon Affiliate links for the products above)