Avoiding the Physical Pitfalls of Working from Home

Avoiding the Physical Pitfalls of Working from Home

Joey Carter, MD

Coronavirus (COVID-19) has thousands of Baldwin County children suddenly “schooling” from home. And that means thousands of Baldwin County parents are unexpectedly working from home alongside them.

Fortunately, technology and new software platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom keep us connected to teachers and co-workers.  But those same tools come with pitfalls, when we’re suddenly on a keyboard or tablet several hours a day.  Overuse of handheld devices can lead to unintended problems with the hand, wrist and arm. And poor desk posture without breaks to stretch can leave you slouched and strained with the potential for musculoskeletal injuries.   

If you’re working from home for the first time, it’s important to set up a healthy work space:

  • Check the height of your desk  – should be elbow level when sitting
  • Make sure you have a natural posture – no hunching  or twisting
  • Find a chair that adjusts and supports the curve of your lower (lumbar) back

Good posture is essential:

  • Spine: Keep ears in line with tops of shoulders and shoulders in line with hips
  • Shoulders: Upper arms hang relaxed and close to the body
  • Wrists: Hands are in straight lines with lower arms

Repetitive use of a computer keyboard and mouse can sometimes lead to Carpal tunnel syndrome. Symptoms are tingling or numbness in the fingers, caused by pressure on your median nerve. This nerve gives you feeling in your thumb and all fingers (except the pinky).  When the median nerve goes through your wrist, it passes through a narrow path – the carpal tunnel – that’s made of bone and ligament. If you have any swelling in the wrist, this tunnel gets squeezed and pinches the median nerve, which causes your symptoms.

While there’s no surefire way to prevent Carpal tunnel, a lighter touch helps.   Keep your fingers relaxed while typing and using a mouse.  Avoid holding a pen or anything else in your hands while you type.   Keep your hands stretched and relaxed: make a tight fist then relax your fingers and spread them out. Repeat 5-10 times.

You might be surprised how many patients we see with “smartphone tendinitis” – caused by repetitive typing and swiping that irritates the thumb flexor tendon.     Did you know many of us type hundreds of text messages a day? Not exactly what our hands were designed to do.    Holding a smartphone with the wrist in an awkward position for a prolonged period of time can irritate forearm tendons and lead to a painful condition known as “DeQuervain’s tendinosis.”  

The primary treatment includes common sense changes like texting less frequently, improving posture, and modifying the way you hold your phone or tablet.  If symptoms don’t improve with rest, options include splints, medications, hand therapy or a cortisone injection.

Using a laptop?  Its design can be inherently problematic for our posture.  Either your head/neck bends to see the screen or your hands/wrists use poor posture at the keyboard.  If your laptop has become the “home office”, consider buying either an external monitor or keyboard.

Remember, our bodies weren’t designed to sit still – even in correct position – for long periods of time. Take a break!  Change your seated position occasionally, stand up and stretch every 30 minutes or walk around outside.  These are challenging times – staying home means staying well for all of us.