Is working from home a pain in the neck?
The pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on our working practices. A recent survey showed that 60% of employees were working from home, with many planning to work from home permanently or regularly post lockdown. This implies a developing trend rather than a temporary solution.
Whilst this may have been welcomed by some who detested the commute, who no longer have small children running around and who enjoy the luxury of a well-equipped home office, the majority have found this adaptation challenging for a whole host of reasons. What was once a home and a haven has now become an office with temporary workstations in bedrooms, hallways, under stairs cupboards and kitchen tables. The work–home boundary that so many modern workers were already struggling to delineate has become blurred. Some employees have reported rolling out of bed and immediately logging on whilst in their pyjamas, meaning the working day for some is elongated. Then at the close of play, a difficulty in switching off, relaxing and even sleeping. Hours and hours spent in back to back online meetings, paradoxically in isolation, makes one hanker after the rush to the station, the walk to work and the workplace distractions.
Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, Public Health England were trying to address the concerning issue of decreased physical activity within our sedentary population, with many initiatives and tv adverts luring people off their sofas and into gyms and swimming pools. With many leisure centres and gyms now closed and the recurring ‘stay at home’ message, these concerns have been amplified.
It appears that osteopaths are seeing more patients complaining of ailments relating to a lack of activity, one being neck pain. A majority of neck pain is due to a strain on the soft tissues surrounding the neck and upper back, such as muscles and ligaments. This may be due to poor posture or purely muscle fatigue. Muscles function well when they naturally contract and relax, but can become tired when having to maintain a contraction. If one were asked to stand holding a weight with arms outstretched in front of them for more than a few minutes, then it would become very uncomfortable. The weight of a human head can be 10-12lbs, so muscles and ligaments have to work hard to support the weight of the head when held in a forward slumped position, for instance if sitting at a laptop on a sofa. Hence muscle fatigue sets in and pain emerges. Over time the muscles lay down extra tissue to help reinforce and support these poor postures and these appear as tough ropey knots when palpated or massaged. In other cases, tight bundles of fibres within muscles develop known as ‘trigger points’ which can be locally tender when palpated but can also refer pain to surrounding areas.
Other neck pain may be joint related, whereby the joints have become less mobile due to physical changes hindering the sliding motion of the facet joints. These could be age related degenerative changes where the discs have thinned, or due to previous injury such as whiplash associated disorder, or even repetitive use in the case of hobbies or sporting activities. Acute neck pain can emerge following sleeping awkwardly or a quick sudden movement which catches the body unaware. It is rare for these acute episodes to come out of the blue; often they are due to the cumulative effects of poor posture. Whilst painful, in most cases neck pain does subside and generally get better within a six-week period. Often over-the-counter paracetamol, anti-inflammatories and topical gels are recommended where appropriate, in combination with heat packs, cold packs and gentle exercises to speed up recovery.
We can advise on good posture all we like but first and foremost, the body does not like static positions, it needs movement. Excessive sitting has been linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes with health professionals considering the health risks similar to those of smoking. As has been repeatedly said, ‘Motion is lotion’, and the joints, muscles and organs of the body need to be moving regularly to avoid stiffness, congestion and ultimately pain and dysfunction. Sedentary workers are advised to get up and move for at least five minutes every 30 minutes even if its just to move around on the spot or walk around the room. Adjustable desks have become popular allowing people the option of working from a sitting or standing position.
The good news is that Osteopaths can help with uncomplicated mechanical neck pain (as opposed to neck pain following an injury i.e Whiplash). Once a thorough case history and examination has taken place, and all other potential sinister possibilities excluded, the osteopath will propose a management plan. This will often include a package of care involving hands on treatment, postural advice, plus a series of patient specific exercises. Treatment often aims to soften the areas of tight muscle around the neck and shoulders and decompress the spine like a concertina being opened and stretched. Other techniques look to improve the segmental mobility of the cervical spine (neck) and thoracic spine below, all of which help to realign the head and neck on the body, ultimately reducing the demand on key muscles groups. Your practitioner will undoubtedly ask you about your work station set up and offer suggestions to improve the positioning of the lap top, the mouse and seating position and most of all encourage you to take regular breaks. They may recommend a laptop stand, a lumbar support or a footrest. Neck pain can often be uncomfortable at night, so advice is usually given regarding the optimal sleeping position and choice of pillows. Osteopathic treatment may also aid relaxation and help decrease the stress and anxiety felt by so many in these challenging times.
If you recognise yourself within the scenarios above then give the ESO Clinic a call and book yourself in for a consultation.
Blog created by Robert Thomas, ESO Clinic Ambassador, Clinic Tutor and Osteopath. To find out more about osteopathy and the European School of Osteopathy visit www.eso.ac.uk/clinic or call for a consultation on Maidstone (01622) 685989.