Migraine, tense neck, low back pain and blurred vision: can you recognize your faithful home office companions in any of those? While the cause of poor well-being is normally looked for only when we’ve began to feel acute discomfort, we did learn at every occupational health and safety training that an ill-prepared workstation puts a strain on our body. So why do companies forget about educating employees in everyday work hygiene, and what should make us change our habits, experts Adam Pawelec and Sebastian Antkiewicz explain.
When, gradually, we started to inch towards getting the pandemic under control, one key question would pop up in the minds of both employers and employees, namely: “when the pandemic is over, do we want to return to the office?”. Many studies conducted in this context indicate that, as of now, there is no clear answer. Some dream of returning to their desk on the 10th floor of a glass skyscraper, others work much better inside their own private four walls, and others yet (this group being just as numerous as the other two!), are not sure. The role of technology, then, is to take the “declaration” out of the equation, i.e. to give people the right to say: “I don’t know” and to enable a hybrid way of working. Thus, using equipment or access to applications (e.g. single sign on) should be just as convenient for an employee at home as it is in the office. On the other hand, access to company resources should be secured to the same degree, regardless of the location from which we work and the equipment we use. The same goes for good work habits that help us take care of our physical health and mental comfort: we should cultivate them regardless of whether we work remotely or at the office.
Sebastian Antkiewicz, Client Solutions Group Manager, Dell Technologies Polska
During the first months of the pandemic our organization had to quickly adapt to the remote style of working. First, it was crucial to provide equipment and purchase a large number of laptops for employees. Next it was time to take care of security – during the “emergency” transition of the entire company to the home office, additional risks threatened unsecured networks and devices, which were often exploited by cybercriminals. Once the situation was under control, organizations began to take care of the smooth flow of information, implement tools to organize work, digital workflow or file sharing. And this is how we got to the point where most thought that the home office mode of working had been mastered. Meanwhile, nothing could be further from the truth; the area that needs special attention today is the overall digital, mental and physical well-being of employees. In fact, the importance of physical well-being has become ever more evident now, after a year of working remotely, with our bodies desperately needing relaxation, physical activity and proper work habits.
Adam Pawelec, osteopath
What happens to our body when we fail to maintain proper posture while working?
Although most often back pain is differentiated into the one occurring in the lumbar, thoracic or cervical section, in most cases they are not completely separate phenomena, but are interconnected. Their source lies in a long held, incorrect posture of one’s body.
Problems with the lumbar spine: first symptoms are often ignored
Usually, when we think of loads, or overloading, tasks as carrying or lifting things comes to our mind. However, sitting also puts a strain on our muscles. Whether it’s office work, traveling by car or public transportation, we spend most of our days sitting. While some muscles’ reaction to the load involves lowering their tension and stretching, others will contract and tighten.
Sitting on a hip disturbs the balance between the following muscles: hip flexors and hip extensors. Long-term tension in these muscles results in pelvic imbalance, causing the so-called anterior tilt. The latter leads to the stretching and relaxation of the rectus abdominis, gluteus maximus and ischiofemoral muscles.
The weakening of the gluteal muscles brings about the release or destabilization of the sacrum, being the primary point of attachment for the back extensor muscles. When that point loses stability, extensors will build up tension on the belly in the lumbar region, stiffen the segment between the shoulder blades, or in extreme cases, stiffen the cervical region of the spine. One may then experience pain and stiffness in the lumbar, thoracic, or cervical spine.
When we function in the anterior pelvic tilt, i.e. when the hip flexor muscles are contracted and the extensors stretched, we are actually bent forward all the time, and our body is trying to counter this. To this end, the lumbar spine will start to bend a lot, using the extensor, and crushing the spinal discs in the process. This is where the pain of the extensor being “overworked” will occur. We often ignore this pain, playing it down as a normal sensation resulting from fatigue. However, we can actually exacerbate the pain by adding some energy to it even while doing simple daily activities, e.g. reaching for a shirt lying on the bed in the morning or trying to shove a suitcase onto a cupboard. Contrary to appearances, this is not an emergency situation requiring a huge load but rather a result of accumulated processes; the extra energy will at some point become the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. A simple bending motion, or even a sneeze, can lead to what is known as disc prolapse, or discopathy, in this situation.
Another cause of lumbar spine pain can be… your guts. The small intestine is attached to the mesentery, which in turn is connected to the lumbar spine. A sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, obesity and slowed peristalsis will result in bowel disorders and increased intestinal tension, which in turn will be passed onto the spine. Keep in mind that this can happen in a reverse manner as well, i.e. back problems can directly affect the functioning of internal organs, and, indirectly, if you take pain killers.
Thoracic region and hypoxia
The thoracic section of the spine along with the rib cage protects the lungs, heart and large vessels. Consequently, it should maintain mobility, especially with respect to flexion and extension movements and rotation. When it is used for stabilization, it becomes rigid.
So the pain in the thoracic section only rarely originates in the rib cage. Usually its source is in the lumbar or cervical region. Such ailments are caused by the change in the “intended use” of our spine – the lumbosacral junction, or the pelvis, which should be a stable, most immobile part, begins to be loose, and the thoracic spine, which should have freedom of movement, begins to stabilize.
The cervical region and tired eyes and headaches
The cervical section is the most mobile part of the spine. Here again, pelvic instability will be a concern as our shoulder blades will not have a point of stability. As the fibers of the spine stabilize on the glutes, when the glutes are too loose, we will try to pull those fibers upward by pulling the shoulders to the ears. This will manifest as pain in the middle of the spine.
Sitting for too long will also affect our breathing, and this will bring on further discomfort. When we sit in a slightly hunched position, it is impossible to breathe in fully, so in order to avoid hypoxia, one will start to use so called auxiliary respiratory muscles (women often do this by breathing through their chest). This in turn causes stiffening of the neck and protraction of the spine, or, in other words, moving the head forward.
Protraction not only affects the appearance of our posture. Long-term use of a computer causes eye fatigue. Leaning forward results in increased tension in the occiput, with our eyes becoming susceptible to fatigue ever faster. This incorrect posture is also taken for example when lying on the couch. The tension can lead to neuralgia of the great occipital nerve which is responsible for tension-type headaches that can spread to the eye and ear.
It is often the case that such headaches are so severe that one cannot continue working. The vagus nerve, which forms the axis between the intestines and the brain, comes out of the same level – and this is why an inappropriate posture can also cause stomach problems. And we have already discussed how intestinal disorders affect the spine.
The primary role of the cervical spine is to move your head. We must be able to look behind us in both directions, down at the ground and up at the sky. Therefore, by definition, it must be the most mobile segment of our spine. Unfortunately, due to disturbed thoracic and in particular lumbar segments, our neck takes on a stabilizing role, impairing its function. This happens because, naturally, the shoulder blades, with the help of the latissimus dorsi (whose superficial fibers go into the gluteus maximus muscle), stabilize on the pelvis. Unfortunately, in the case of the abnormal stabilization of the pelvis, we start to pull the shoulder blades to the ears, thus stiffening the cervical section of the spine. Of course, the price for such a state will not only be a pain in the neck section and head, or discopathy and shoulder sciatica, but also hunching, head protraction or widow’s hump.
If you sit in a hunched position for too long, it will affect your breathing and reduce the amount of oxygen that reaches your brain, making you more tired and less efficient at work. As we activate the auxiliary breathing muscles, including the scalene muscles, we may experience stiffness in the neck, but also the thoracic outlet syndrome. The latter manifests as impaired sensation and circulation in the upper extremities. Additionally, it can bring about shoulder pain, elbow pain (tennis elbow) or carpal tunnel syndrome.
The protraction of the head may result in increased tension of the suboccipital muscles, which may cause faster eye fatigue while working in front of a computer. Also, it may trigger irritation of the great occipital nerve, leading to tension headaches spreading behind the eye and into the ear, and irritation of the vagus nerve, which is responsible for the so-called brain-gut axis, i.e. the communication of the brain with the intestines and the intestines with the brain.
The brain-gut axis is a vital connection in our body. Symptoms that occur when this connection is disturbed include feeling a tight stomach when under stress or feeling nauseous in pregnant women. This mechanism will also contribute to stomach pain, heartburn, reflux, and could impair the bowel function. The result can be SIBO: small intestine bacterial overgrowth, sensitive bowel syndrome, bloating and many other digestion-related problems. Consequently, pains in the back may arise.
How to combat the pain
As Adam Pawelec explains, the processes caused by prolonged sitting are strongly correlated and reinforce each other, causing changes in muscle tension. This leads to even more disorders and pain:
Prolonged sitting disturbs muscle tension, and our body can do nothing but tighten muscles on its own. It is able to tense up under such stimuli as stress or fatigue, but it will not relax on its own. Therefore, you need to remember about cyclical physical activity to “force” your body not only to contract, but also to relax your muscles. An important thing to remember is that after each physical activity we should stretch. If you are pressed for time, you should at least stretch those muscles that were most active during your work-out. Remember that sitting and working at a computer is also an effort for the body, not particularly a healthy one, so make sure to stretch at least hip flexors and pectoral muscles.
Proper arrangement of your workstation, taking breaks and engaging in physical activity are the key to controlling inappropriate muscle tension and getting rid of the back pain.