Working from Home is a Pain in the Neck. These Ergonomic Dos and Don’ts Can Help.

Spine on blue background. Follow these ergonomic tips while working at home to avoid neck and back pain.

Remote work has its perks, but ergonomics isn’t one of them. 

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, millions of Americans are still working from home, spending countless (pantless) hours on the couch, hunched over a tiny laptop screen. 

And while it may seem cozy to work from your sofa or bed, you could be setting yourself up for potential musculoskeletal injuries—carpal tunnel, tendonitis, muscle sprain, and lower back and neck pain, to name a few. 

The good news is, there are several ways to create a comfy-yet-functional work set up and prevent long-term damage to your body.

If you’re starting to feel pains of WFH life (read: neck or back pain, swollen legs or feet, or numbness and tingling in the fingers), now is the time to make changes to your workspace.

As ZOOM+Care’s Dr. Michael Lell, DC says, “Taking the time to make little changes like this saves a lot of time and headache in the future. It’s easier to adjust your chair than suffer from daily neck pain.”

Keep scrolling for some chiropractor-approved do’s and don’ts of working at home: 

DON’T hunch over your laptop. 

Doing so for 40+ hours a week can lead to back, shoulder, and neck strain. If you can, use a laptop riser or an external monitor while working.

As a rule of thumb, your eye line should be level with the top of your computer monitor.

If you place your laptop on a riser, consider using a separate mouse and keyboard as well. Your elbows should be bent at 90 degrees while typing—which can be tricky to achieve if your laptop is elevated. 

That reminds us: DO use the 90-degree rule. 

Sitting seems like a tough thing to screw up, but alas—there is a “right” way to sit while working at your computer. 

To ensure proper alignment of your arms and legs while sitting, think 90-90-90. Sitting with a 90-degree angle at the elbows, hips, and knees allows for the least physical strain in a seated position.

DON’T dangle your feet. 

During the workday, try to keep both of your feet flat on the floor as much as you can. 

When you plant your feet on the ground, you’re stable. When you dangle them, you can throw off the arch in your lower back, which can eventually lead to back pain. 

Don’t pull your feet back underneath your chair, either—this puts pressure under your thighs, which restricts blood flow to your lower legs and increases your risk of complications, such as deep vein thrombosis.

If your feet don’t reach the floor, try placing them on a footrest, box, or pile of books. To reduce stress on your lumbar spine, make sure your thighs are parallel to the floor with your hips slightly higher than your knees.

DO incorporate standing.  

Miss your standing desk? It’s no wonder: Working while standing is linked to decreased lower and upper back pain and neck pain. As an added bonus, alternating between sitting and standing can also increase your productivity and focus.

While most of us can’t shell out for high-end office furniture, we can improvise. You can hack together a standing setup with a few boxes or books, or even an ironing board.

If you go DIY with your standing desk, just make sure you pay attention to some basic ergonomic guidelines—namely, your screen’s height. Your monitor should be high enough so that you’re looking straight ahead and not looking down or hunching over to see the screen. 

DO find a supportive chair: 

When it comes to WFH life, you need a sound support system—and by that, we mean a good, sturdy office chair. 

An ideal office chair has adjustable options for height and depth, recline, and lumbar support—but we know not everyone has access to such ergonomic luxuries. 

If you don’t have a chair with built-in lumbar support, you can DIY your way to an ergonomically correct seating situation. 

The first step is to pay attention to how you sit. 

Lean back in your chair so that some of your body weight is supported by the chair back.

If your chair lacks good lower-back support, place a cushion or rolled-up towel behind your lower back. (It’s a slightly less effective substitute for an ergonomic chair, but it’s way better than nothing!)

Many office chairs have built-in neck support, which is something you’re less likely to have at home.

To prevent tightness and pain, try incorporating neck exercises throughout the day.  

Here are three easy ones: 

Chin-to-Chest Stretch.

  • Gently look downward, bringing your head close to your chest until you can feel the stretch in the back of your neck.
  • Hold the stretch for a few seconds, then slowly and release.

Side-to-Side Stretch. 

 Keep your head over your shoulders and make sure your back is straight. Gently turn your head to the right until you feel a stretch in the side of your neck and shoulder. Hold for ten to 15 seconds, then repeat the process to the left.

Side-Tilt Stretch. 

  • Very gently tilt your head toward your right shoulder, as if you’re trying to touch it with your ear. Stop when you feel the stretch. You’re trying to stretch the muscles in your neck, so don’t raise your shoulder to meet your head. 
  • Hold the stretch for five to ten seconds, then return to the start position.
  • Repeat on your left side. 

DON’T use a squishy wrist rest.

They may seem like they’re providing support, but ergonomics experts say that these accessories can increase stress on your wrists. 

Putting anything under your wrist while you work can add compression on the finger flexor tendons and on the median nerve, which can actually up your risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.

DO incorporate movement and stretches into your workday.

Ah, yes. Remember the days when we’d commute to the office? Walk to and from meetings? Take a brisk stroll on our way to pick up lunch, perhaps? Now we’re lucky if we walk to the kitchen a few times a day for a snack. 

It should go without saying, but—even if we’re not in the office, getting off our backsides and moving throughout the day is still important. 

Do small things to keep your body moving throughout the workday. Take phone calls standing up, set an alarm every 30 to 60 seconds to remind you to move, stand up often, take frequent water breaks, and alternate between working standing up and sitting.

Additionally, consider incorporating stretches into your daily routine. 

Jennifer Naughton, a Doctor of Physical Therapy here at ZOOM+Care, has a few recommendations.

First up is a pectoral stretch—a simple exercise that can help make it easier for you to attain and maintain proper posture.

Towel Chest Stretch. 

  • Start by grabbing a towel or a strap. 
  • Stand up straight, paying close attention to your posture. Hold the towel or strap behind your back.
  • Slowly lift the towel behind you, holding the ends with both hands.
  • Use the towel to pull your shoulders into extension. You should feel a stretch in the front of your chest. Squeeze the shoulder blades together to maximize the stretch.
  • Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds, and then relax.
  • Repeat 2-3 times.

Another stretch Dr. Naughton recommends for folks working from home is a hip flexor stretch. 

Lunging Hip Flexor Stretch 

  • Start on a soft surface, like a yoga mat or carpet.
  • Next, kneel on your left knee. Place your right foot flat on the floor in front of you with your knee bent.
  • Lean forward, stretching your left hip toward the floor.
  • Squeeze the muscles in your buttocks. This will allow you to stretch your hip flexor even more!
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds. 
  • Switch sides, then repeat. 

DO limit the time spent working on your couch or bed. 

We know they’re super cozy, but the couch and bed are among the worst places to work. 

A sofa might feel comfy initially, but it can lead to pain in your lower back and neck. That’s because sitting on a couch encourages you to slump, round your shoulders, and put your head forward—which puts a lot more strain on your body.

While the couch is not your WFH friend, a bed is even worse. Why?

Unless you sit on the edge of your bed with your feet flat on the floor, you either have to cross your legs or extend them horizontally, using them as support for your laptop. That’s way too low for optimal screen viewing, causing you to slump and hunch over. 

If your bed is your only option, put a pillow behind your back to rest against the headboard, then put your laptop on a cushion in your lap. 

Are you starting to feel the pains of working from home? Our Bodyworks teams have your back. We offer same-day Physical Therapy, Chiropractic, and Medical Message visits. Schedule today.