This Is What Happens To Your Body When You Work From Home

Monica Torres
·8 min read
This Is What Happens To Your Body When You Work From Home

Over the past month, many Americans who can do their jobs remotely made the abrupt transition to working from home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

If you’re one of them, you may have a less-than-ideal office setup without ergonomic chairs, keyboards or computer monitors, and are experiencing new body aches and pains. Slouching, sitting too long, extending your wrists and relying upon a laptop screen put physical stress on your body that you may not notice but will definitely feel later.

If you are currently holding your neck from the pain of staring down at your laptop, you need to pay attention to what your body is telling you.

“If people wait till things start to hurt, already they’ve waited a little bit too long,” said Alan Hedge, director of the human factors and ergonomics research group at Cornell University.

Keeping your body in a neutral, relaxed position while working is key to avoiding pain, Hedge said. If your work-from-home setup isn’t ergonomic, you will “accelerate the onset of musculoskeletal problems ranging from neck, shoulder, back problems, to hand-wrist problems, to leg problems, all because of working in poor postures,” he said.

Here are some body aches to watch out for and ways to address them:

1. Your neck and shoulders hurt.

If your neck and shoulders are sending you warning pangs, your posture and the way you are looking at your work may be the culprit.

“If you are looking at a low monitor, you are going to be flexing your neck and your head forward and down, which is going to change your posture,” said Karen Loesing, owner of California-based The Ergonomic Expert, which evaluates ergonomics for businesses. “If your monitor is at the correct height, it’s naturally going to pick you up and put you in the back of the chair.”

Solution: Evaluate your work station to isolate what is causing your neck and shoulders to feel off. Cornell University compiled a “Where It Hurts” guide to address questions specific to your work setup.

For shoulder and neck pain, tips from the guide include positioning the monitor at eye level so that your neck and shoulders are in a neutral position and placing frequently-used objects nearby so your body doesn’t have to strain to use them.

If you’re working from home on a laptop and don’t have the money to upgrade right now, there are still ergonomic upgrades you can do that are free. Loesing suggests placing the laptop on a table or desk that is preferably at elbow height. Change locations and positions frequently up to twice an hour to increase your circulation, Loesing recommends.

“The best posture is the next posture,” she said.

"The best posture is the next posture,” ergonomic expert Karen Loesing said about how workers can prevent back and neck pain through ergonomics. (Photo: recep-bg via Getty Images)
"The best posture is the next posture,” ergonomic expert Karen Loesing said about how workers can prevent back and neck pain through ergonomics. (Photo: recep-bg via Getty Images)

2. Your eyes feel fatigued.

When you stare at the glare of a computer screen for too long, you are making your eyes work harder. This habit can lead to digital eye strain that is characterized by headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, and neck and shoulder pain.

“Eye strain is also common for those who don’t take breaks from the computer screen,” said Loesing.

Solution: Seek natural light and take frequent breaks. To give your eyes a break, follow the 20-20-20 rule endorsed by the American Optometric Association: “Take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes.”

If you’re working from a home office, Loesing recommends working near a window with natural light that is preferably at a 90-degree angle to your screen, as opposed to right behind you. “That’s better for your eyes than all this artificial [light],” she said.

To give your eyes a break, follow the 20-20-20 rule endorsed by the American Optometric Association: 'Take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes.'

3. Your hips are tight.

Your back is actually supposed to recline 15 to 20 degrees to keep your hips open, not be ramrod straight.

“When you’re sitting at 90 degrees, your hip flexors get super tight because they’re kind of squished, so when you go to get up out of your chair, if you haven’t gotten up in a while, it feels like ‘I’m 100 years old,’” Loesing said. “Really tight hip flexors lead to a lot of back pain. It’s a common connection.”

Solution: Recline your seat if your chair is adjustable, and if not, get up frequently. If you are working from a dining chair that has no give and you are hoping that this remote work situation is just temporary, keep your body moving.

“Break at least every 20 minutes and get out of that tight posture,” Loesing said. “The good thing about working at home is that you have that flexibility.”

4. Your legs cramp.

Leg cramps are signs of poor circulation, and the ache is your body telling you that you are not working with good posture. “If you get a cramp in your leg, that’s the muscle saying, ‘Hey, I never had a good blood supply here.’ And if I ask you to sit down kneeling on your leg all day, you’re pretty guaranteed to get a cramp there,” Hedge said.

Solution: Promote good circulation in your legs. One way to do this is to adjust the height of your chair so that your feet are flat on the ground. If that’s not possible, use a footrest. That way there is less pressure on your thighs and the position promotes good circulation, according to Cornell’s “Where It Hurts” guide.

Periodic breaks every 20 minutes to move around are another way to promote good circulation. “When you’re walking around, the muscles of the body are pumping almost as much blood as your heart is pumping,” Hedge said.

5. Your wrists hurt.

When your forearms sag and your wrists are bent, this position can put your wrists at greater risk of wrist extension. (Photo: Wavebreakmedia via Getty Images)
When your forearms sag and your wrists are bent, this position can put your wrists at greater risk of wrist extension. (Photo: Wavebreakmedia via Getty Images)

If your hands and wrists are straining and aren’t in a neutral position, “That puts more strain on the tendons that go through a structure in your wrist called the carpal tunnel, and [as] those tendons become inflamed, they put pressure on the median nerve, and then you get a problem called carpal tunnel syndrome,” Hedge said.

Carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects 1.9 million Americans, can result in tingling, numbness and muscle weakness in your hands and fingers, according to the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention.

Solution: Keep your wrists flat and straight. You want your wrists to be as flat as possible and straight, so they are not bent left or right.

If it’s possible, look into a keyboard and mouse that will keep your wrists neutral. “If your wrists ache or tire, look into buying an ergonomic keyboard that angles out from the center, making it easier for you to keep your hand and forearm in a straight line,” recommends Princeton University’s health services.

6. Your back aches.

The CDC reports that back pain symptoms are among the top 10 reasons for medical visits in America.

Leaning forward to type, for example, puts strain on your lumbar region, which can lead to back injuries. “If you lean forward, you increase the compression on those vertebrae, you increase it up to 200% compared to if you can sit back in a relaxed position,” Hedge said.

Solution: Make sure your back is supported and not being strained. The goal with ergonomics is to get your body into the best neutral position you can get into, Hedge said.

When your seat is slightly reclined, “the chair starts to work for the body and there are significant decreases in postural muscle activity and in intervertebral disc pressure in the lumbar spine,” Cornell’s guidelines state.

If you are seeking cheap lumbar support, try using a towel. Roll up the towel and put it behind your back so that it preserves the inward bending of the lower back, Hedge said.

Love HuffPost? Become a founding member of HuffPost Plus today.

Related...

How To Adjust Your Office Chair When You Are Short

This Is What Happens to Your Body When You Hate Your Job

Funny Tweets About What It's Like To Suddenly Work From Home

Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

If you only do one yoga pose after a long day at work, make it a downward-facing dog, a holistic pose that stretches and strengthens many parts of the body. To come into the pose, move into an inverted "V' shape. With hands outstretched in front and you, lift the hips and ground the feet (at about hips-width apart) into the floor. Ground all the fingers into the floor and point them forward, bring your attention to the breath as you enjoy the stretch for 30-60 seconds.  "It helps you lengthen and strengthen muscles in the body," says Vidya Bielkus, certified yoga teacher and co-founder of Health Yoga Life. "It reduces tension in the shoulders, relaxes the neck, and lets a little more blood flow get to the brain. You're also able to really stretch the legs, so if you're sitting all day, the legs are getting inactive."  The pose is also great for stretching out the wrists and hands, which may become sore or tired from hours of typing.
If you only do one yoga pose after a long day at work, make it a downward-facing dog, a holistic pose that stretches and strengthens many parts of the body. To come into the pose, move into an inverted "V' shape. With hands outstretched in front and you, lift the hips and ground the feet (at about hips-width apart) into the floor. Ground all the fingers into the floor and point them forward, bring your attention to the breath as you enjoy the stretch for 30-60 seconds. "It helps you lengthen and strengthen muscles in the body," says Vidya Bielkus, certified yoga teacher and co-founder of Health Yoga Life. "It reduces tension in the shoulders, relaxes the neck, and lets a little more blood flow get to the brain. You're also able to really stretch the legs, so if you're sitting all day, the legs are getting inactive." The pose is also great for stretching out the wrists and hands, which may become sore or tired from hours of typing.

Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Counter a long day of contracting the back with this powerful back and chest-opening posture. Come to a comfortable standing position with feet hips-width apart, bring your hands up over your head with palms facing forward and thumbs hooked as you bend gently backwards and breathe deeply.  "This is a powerful pose to free up tight chest muscles," Bielkus says.
Counter a long day of contracting the back with this powerful back and chest-opening posture. Come to a comfortable standing position with feet hips-width apart, bring your hands up over your head with palms facing forward and thumbs hooked as you bend gently backwards and breathe deeply. "This is a powerful pose to free up tight chest muscles," Bielkus says.

Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

Fish pose is an excellent tension reducer, and can also be therapeutic for fatigue and anxiety, <a href="http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/786" target="_blank">according to Yoga Journal</a>. To come into the pose, sit up on your hips with legs stretched out together in front of you and toes pointed. Bring your hands under your hips and lean back to prop yourself up on your forearms. Then, lift the chest above the shoulders and drop the head back to the ground behind you. Breathe deeply and rest in the pose for 15-30 seconds.  Fish pose "releases tension in the neck, throat, and head, helps stretch the chest muscles and opens up the lungs," Bielkus says.
Fish pose is an excellent tension reducer, and can also be therapeutic for fatigue and anxiety, according to Yoga Journal. To come into the pose, sit up on your hips with legs stretched out together in front of you and toes pointed. Bring your hands under your hips and lean back to prop yourself up on your forearms. Then, lift the chest above the shoulders and drop the head back to the ground behind you. Breathe deeply and rest in the pose for 15-30 seconds. Fish pose "releases tension in the neck, throat, and head, helps stretch the chest muscles and opens up the lungs," Bielkus says.

Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)

A forward bend provides a soothing feeling of release -- making the pose <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/19/yoga-for-anxiety-10-poses_n_3281986.html" target="_blank">therapeutic for stress and anxiety</a> -- and with the added arm bind, this standing forward bend variation provides a deep shoulder stretch as well.  Stand with your feet at hips-width distance, and slowly bend forward from the hips to come into the forward bend. To take the strain off the lower back, bend the knees slightly. Then, try adding an arm bind to stretch the shoulders: Interlace your hands at the lower back and stretch the arms over your head and hands towards the ground in front of you. For those with tight shoulders, hold a belt between your hands, allowing the shoulders to get a deep but less intense stretch.  "By binding the hands, you also allow the arms to stretch and tight shoulders to relax," Bielkus says. "After sitting all day, it's a great idea to turn your world upside down and bring some blood back to the brain while getting a great stretch for the legs."
A forward bend provides a soothing feeling of release -- making the pose therapeutic for stress and anxiety -- and with the added arm bind, this standing forward bend variation provides a deep shoulder stretch as well. Stand with your feet at hips-width distance, and slowly bend forward from the hips to come into the forward bend. To take the strain off the lower back, bend the knees slightly. Then, try adding an arm bind to stretch the shoulders: Interlace your hands at the lower back and stretch the arms over your head and hands towards the ground in front of you. For those with tight shoulders, hold a belt between your hands, allowing the shoulders to get a deep but less intense stretch. "By binding the hands, you also allow the arms to stretch and tight shoulders to relax," Bielkus says. "After sitting all day, it's a great idea to turn your world upside down and bring some blood back to the brain while getting a great stretch for the legs."

Cat & Cow Pose (Marjaryasana & Bitilasana)

Cat-cow tilts can be an effective <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/15/yoga-for-headaches_n_3574848.html" target="_blank">headache reliever</a>, in addition to opening up the back and stretching the spine. Start with hands and knees on the floor in a tabletop position with a neutral spine. On the inhale, round the spine and curve up into your cat pose (pictured above). On the exhale, arch the back and lift the chest to come into a cow pose. Repeat three to five times, focusing on the breath.  "It also helps bring the neck back into the position over the spine -- people tend to protrude it forward, and this pose brings the vertebrae back to homeostasis," Bielkus says.
Cat-cow tilts can be an effective headache reliever, in addition to opening up the back and stretching the spine. Start with hands and knees on the floor in a tabletop position with a neutral spine. On the inhale, round the spine and curve up into your cat pose (pictured above). On the exhale, arch the back and lift the chest to come into a cow pose. Repeat three to five times, focusing on the breath. "It also helps bring the neck back into the position over the spine -- people tend to protrude it forward, and this pose brings the vertebrae back to homeostasis," Bielkus says.

Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)

This pose helps to open the hips and ease sciatica discomfort that can be made worse by sitting for long periods.  Sit up tall with the soles of the feet touching and knees spreading open, bringing the feet in toward the pelvis and clasping your hands around your feet. Flap the knees up and down several times like butterfly wings, then sit still and focus the weight of the hips and thighs into the floor, easing pain in the sciatic nerve.  "The sciatic nerve starts in the lower back and runs down both leg, and sciatic nerve pain can occur when the nerve is somehow compressed," Bielkus says. "Long commutes and sitting for long periods of time exacerbates it."
This pose helps to open the hips and ease sciatica discomfort that can be made worse by sitting for long periods. Sit up tall with the soles of the feet touching and knees spreading open, bringing the feet in toward the pelvis and clasping your hands around your feet. Flap the knees up and down several times like butterfly wings, then sit still and focus the weight of the hips and thighs into the floor, easing pain in the sciatic nerve. "The sciatic nerve starts in the lower back and runs down both leg, and sciatic nerve pain can occur when the nerve is somehow compressed," Bielkus says. "Long commutes and sitting for long periods of time exacerbates it."

Slow Neck Stretches

To counter neck discomfort from staring down at a keyboard or phone, Bielkus recommends a few repetitions of yogic slow neck stretches.  Sitting in a cross-legged pose, lean the head to the right and extend the left arm and hand toward the ground until you feel a deep stretch on the left side of the neck. Breathe deeply and hold for a few breath cycles, repeating on the other side. You can also try standing in Mountain Pose and stretching the neck to one side, gently pulling with the same hand.  "This can also easily be done standing anywhere, even in a cubicle," she says. "It eases neck tension and strain."
To counter neck discomfort from staring down at a keyboard or phone, Bielkus recommends a few repetitions of yogic slow neck stretches. Sitting in a cross-legged pose, lean the head to the right and extend the left arm and hand toward the ground until you feel a deep stretch on the left side of the neck. Breathe deeply and hold for a few breath cycles, repeating on the other side. You can also try standing in Mountain Pose and stretching the neck to one side, gently pulling with the same hand. "This can also easily be done standing anywhere, even in a cubicle," she says. "It eases neck tension and strain."

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

"This pose is an accessible back bend for most people," Bielkus says. "It lengthens the spine, opens up the chest and counteracts sitting hunched over all day."  Lying on the floor, put your hands on the ground slightly in front of you and tuck the elbows into the chest. Push up into your hands, lifting into a slight backbend and drawing the shoulders down. Turn your gaze upwards, and try not to take any tension into the face or jaw.
"This pose is an accessible back bend for most people," Bielkus says. "It lengthens the spine, opens up the chest and counteracts sitting hunched over all day." Lying on the floor, put your hands on the ground slightly in front of you and tuck the elbows into the chest. Push up into your hands, lifting into a slight backbend and drawing the shoulders down. Turn your gaze upwards, and try not to take any tension into the face or jaw.

Half Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)

The hips can get tight from long hours of sitting. To improve flexibility and range of motion in the hips, and open up the chest and shoulders, try a half pigeon pose. Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position, sliding the right knee forward and left leg back, as pictured above, trying to bend the front leg at a 90-degree angle. Sit up tall, and on the exhale, hinge the chest forward and bring the arms out in front of you to feel a deep stretch.  "A half pigeon is great for opening up the hips," Bielkus says.  If you're particularly tight in the hips, try rolling up a blanket under the hips and sitting upright, and then gently hinging forward.
The hips can get tight from long hours of sitting. To improve flexibility and range of motion in the hips, and open up the chest and shoulders, try a half pigeon pose. Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position, sliding the right knee forward and left leg back, as pictured above, trying to bend the front leg at a 90-degree angle. Sit up tall, and on the exhale, hinge the chest forward and bring the arms out in front of you to feel a deep stretch. "A half pigeon is great for opening up the hips," Bielkus says. If you're particularly tight in the hips, try rolling up a blanket under the hips and sitting upright, and then gently hinging forward.

Child's Pose (Balasana)

"Child's pose helps us turn inside and slow our minds down," Virayoga founder Elena Brower recently <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/19/yoga-for-anxiety-10-poses_n_3281986.html#slide=2455747" target="_blank">told The Huffington Post</a>.  The foundational resting pose in many yoga classes, the soothing Child's Pose can help put the mind at ease while also gently opening up the back, hips and shoulders, according to Bielkus.  Sit down with your legs folded beneath you, toes touching and knees spread apart from each other. Drape your chest down between your thighs, bringing your forehead to the floor and either extending the arms out in front of you or resting them by your sides. Breathe deeply and rest in the pose for as long as desired.
"Child's pose helps us turn inside and slow our minds down," Virayoga founder Elena Brower recently told The Huffington Post. The foundational resting pose in many yoga classes, the soothing Child's Pose can help put the mind at ease while also gently opening up the back, hips and shoulders, according to Bielkus. Sit down with your legs folded beneath you, toes touching and knees spread apart from each other. Drape your chest down between your thighs, bringing your forehead to the floor and either extending the arms out in front of you or resting them by your sides. Breathe deeply and rest in the pose for as long as desired.

Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana)

"This pose opens the hips and groin and is very calming for the mind and body," Bielkus says.  Happy Baby Pose is accessible even for beginners, but still provides an excellent stretch for the hip joints, which can get stiff from too much sitting. Lie down on your back, draw the knees into your chest and grab your feet from the inside, pulling them down so the knees extend on either side of your torso. If the stretch is too intense, grab behind your thighs. Try to bring the hips down to the floor. Breathe deeply and rock gently side to side, returning to stillness at your center for 30 seconds.
"This pose opens the hips and groin and is very calming for the mind and body," Bielkus says. Happy Baby Pose is accessible even for beginners, but still provides an excellent stretch for the hip joints, which can get stiff from too much sitting. Lie down on your back, draw the knees into your chest and grab your feet from the inside, pulling them down so the knees extend on either side of your torso. If the stretch is too intense, grab behind your thighs. Try to bring the hips down to the floor. Breathe deeply and rock gently side to side, returning to stillness at your center for 30 seconds.

Sitali Breathing

This cooling breath is the perfect antidote to a long, stressful day. "It releases tension in body and mind, and helps us relieve stress and anger and brings us to a more balanced and clear state," says Bielkus.  To perform this refreshing pranayama exercise, sit in a chair or on the floor in an easy crossed-legged position with your eyes closed. Stick your tongue out and curl up its outer edges. (If you're having trouble tongue curling, try your best and form a slight “O” with the mouth). Inhale through the mouth, letting the air pass over the tongue, feeling a cool breath, and then exhale through your nose.  "Continue long rhythmic breathing for three minutes," she says. "You'll feel totally refreshed!"
This cooling breath is the perfect antidote to a long, stressful day. "It releases tension in body and mind, and helps us relieve stress and anger and brings us to a more balanced and clear state," says Bielkus. To perform this refreshing pranayama exercise, sit in a chair or on the floor in an easy crossed-legged position with your eyes closed. Stick your tongue out and curl up its outer edges. (If you're having trouble tongue curling, try your best and form a slight “O” with the mouth). Inhale through the mouth, letting the air pass over the tongue, feeling a cool breath, and then exhale through your nose. "Continue long rhythmic breathing for three minutes," she says. "You'll feel totally refreshed!"

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.