• Jen Bell

Why level 3 might be giving you back problems - and what you can do about it

If you're still working from home, your desk is probably the kitchen table or sofa. A surefire way to give yourself a sore back. So, how can you ease the ache?



Let me know if this sounds familiar.


I wake up at 7am and grab my phone to check the news before I haul myself out of bed. The coffee machine is my next port of call before I take up residence at the kitchen table. I flip open my laptop and perch on the edge of one of our orange hard-backed chairs.


It doesn't take long for my butt to fall asleep and the usual twinges to start shooting up my back and across my shoulders.


After an hour, I shift to the sofa where I write articles using the tops of my thighs as a makeshift bench. The computer wobbles as I type. New aches set in around my ribcage and neck so I move back to the kitchen. Or sometimes, I'll give my bed a go instead.


The day continues in this vein - a continual migration around the house, in my search for somewhere that feels comfortable for more for a handful of minutes. It is punctuated by an unreasonable amount of gingernuts, cups of tea and Whittaker's chocolate. But that's another story.

I know I'm not alone. Since lockdown measures were put in place, there has been a wave of people complaining about neck and back pain. Kiwis are currently Googling back pain more than 5,623 times per month and neck pain more than 1,500 times per month.


Unfortunately, you still can't see your physio unless you are literally facing a life and death situation - or if treatment can’t be delayed because serious and long-term problems would occur if it was. Level 3 is very similar to level 4 for physiotherapists and similar services.


So, what can you do when you're suffering but not quite badly enough to be classified as an urgent case?


GO VIRTUAL


All is not lost. A number of clinics, including New Zealand owned Active+, are offering virtual consultations, which is well worth considering. These can be carried out via video call or telephone and usually start with the physio asking a series of questions to find out where things hurt.


They might get you to carry out movements and actions on camera, such as bends or stretches — so they can make an assessment. They will then give advice on managing the injury, prescribe exercises and arrange further appointments.


They can also look at how you’re working at home, so you don’t hurt yourself. It might be as simple as tweaking your screen height or changing your posture


TWEAK YOUR WORKING ENVIRONMENT

While you're waiting for your physio appointment, there are a few things you can try to reduce your discomfort.


A chair and desk that is adjustable is obviously the holy grail. Otherwise, try experimenting with cushions to elevate you to a point where your screen is at or slightly below eye-level. That will encourage a much better sitting posture. If you feel like your chair is already at the right height, you can use a stack of books to raise your computer instead.

Your sofa has to be the worst place in the world to work from so avoid it like the plague. It might feel comfortable as you sink into it but it will encourage you to slump and push your neck forward, putting more strain on your body. Not worth it.


Loads of us rely on laptops these days, which is fine - they're convenient. However, when you're using them for hours at a time, they can cause issues for your back and neck , as they tempt you into leaning forwards and rounding your back. You'll be much better off if you can get hold of an external keyboard and mouse. If you still have access to the office, get as much equipment to take home with you as you can.


YOU'VE GOT TO MOVE IT, MOVE IT


The human body is designed to move so if we’re holding the same positions for a long time, it will lead to stiffness and pain. Kath Broad, a physio with 20+ years experience recommends getting up as regularly as possible.


"The most important thing is movement, take a short break every 15 minutes and a proper break where you move around every 45 minutes."


Auckland yoga instructor, Ariel Meadows adds that any stretches or exercises that take you out of your postural habits will help prevent troublesome aches and pains.


“I have had a few people with low back pain recently. Many assume that sitting down is the culprit – but it can result from any postural habit, including standing. Anything that breaks you out of those postural patterns will be beneficial."

Some suggestions include neck rolls, which are pretty straightforward: tilt your head forward as far as you can (comfortably) and move it around, with the tip of your head doing a full circle around before returning to the starting position. Do a 3-5 circles each time.


You could also try a chest opener, to help alleviate the effect of slouching. Join your hands behind your lower back which in turn will open up your chest and shoulders. Without bending your elbows, try bringing your hands up as high as you comfortably can. If you are standing, keep your feet shoulder width apart and and bend your hips forward as you bring your arms up.


TRY TO RELAX


These are stressful times. Not only do we have the threat of a highly contagious virus on our minds, but many of us also have a whole myriad of work and financial worries to deal with. On top of that, if you're working from home, you might have a thousand things vying for your attention, from partners to kids to your dog!


"Many of us hold our breath without realising, especially when we’re anxious or under pressure," says Ariel. "This can lead to lots of tension in the shoulders and upper back."


If you feel anxiety rising, Ariel recommends some deep breathing using the following steps:


One. Breathe in through your nose for 6 seconds (try to fill your abdomen first, then up through your upper chest). Two. Hold your breath for 2-3 seconds. Three. Release your breath slowly through pursed lips. Four. Repeat 10 times.


EXERCISE BUT DON'T GO NUTS


Various types of exercise have been proven to ease pain and help prevent reoccurrences. Swimming, brisk walking, cycling, yoga and toning classes such as pilates are all good fitness choices. But don't go overboard if you're not used to exercising regularly.


Andy Schmidt, Director of Active+ with a background in sports physio, recommends easing into any activities to avoid injury.


“I would suggest gradually increasing activity duration and intensity over a period of four to six weeks. For example, you could start with 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three days a week, eventually working up to 45 minutes, four to five days a week."


IF YOU'RE IN A LOT OF PAIN - ALWAYS ASK FOR HELP


If you do suffer an injury or the pain is simply unbearable, get in touch with a professional sooner rather than later. It could be that your case is actually an urgent one. It is worth asking rather than leaving it and making things a lot worse than they should have been.


Even if it isn't urgent, a health professional will be able to point you in the right direction and provide a home programme of care that you can follow until you're able to see someone in person.


“There’s a lot we can do without being hands on," explains Andy. "So, don't put it off or wait until the pain is more severe before reaching out. We can still assess injuries, either ACC or private. We can still lodge ACC claims. Physios can refer their patients to a specialist if further treatments or assessments, such as x-rays and ultrasounds are necessary."


If you're unsure whether your condition is urgent or have any other medical concerns, you can call Healthline free on 0800 611 116 for 24/7 health advice and information.


For medical emergencies, call 111. A medical emergency includes chest pain or tightness, difficulty breathing, choking, severe bleeding or bleeding that won’t stop, sudden weakness or difficulty talking, fainting or unconsciousness.