Toronto

How to prevent aches and pains caused by makeshift home offices

Some registered physiotherapists in the city say they’ve seen a spike in clients seeking treatment for aches and pains caused by makeshift home workstations, and they've got some advice on how to make working at home easier on your body.

Increasing activity, creating a more ergonomic work space can help prevent injuries, experts say

Since Fegan Decordova started working from home in March, she says she's had nagging pain in her neck and shoulder. (Submitted by Fegan Decordova)

Whether it's on the couch, the kitchen stool or the low desk chair, Fegan Decordova says she's finding herself slumped over her computer now more than ever.

Like thousands of others, she began working from home in March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But without much space, she's had to improvise when it comes to an "office."

Now, she's feeling the effects on her body.

"I've been suffering with a little bit of a neck pain that goes down through my whole shoulder blade," she said.

"I just always catch myself with the forward lean and the low tables and all this stuff, so it's kind of irritating it."

Decordova isn't alone, with at least two registered physiotherapists in the city saying they've seen a spike in clients seeking treatment for aches and pains caused by makeshift home workstations.

Matthew Laing, owner of Foundation Physiotherapy, says he's seen about a 25 per cent increase in neck and back injuries — directly related to work from home setups — since his clinic reopened three weeks ago.

"We need to really adapt to our new normal and fix our workspaces to minimize the injuries coming in," he said.

Matthew Laing is a registered physiotherapist and is the owner of Foundation Physiotherapy in Toronto. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

Besides poor work set-ups, people also aren't moving as much, and it's taking a toll on their health,.says Justin Lui, the owner of the Physio Loft.

"After you finish work, instead of walking home and sort of getting some fresh air, you walk from the kitchen counter and you sit on the couch as your down time. The body isn't really moving." 

Work from home woes

Although there are plenty of benefits associated with working from home, Lui says a lot of people don't have the space for a proper ergonomic set-up, which reduces the chances of strains, sprains and other injuries.

As a result, he's seeing issues like shoulder impingement — a pinch on certain muscles around the shoulders — or even headaches.

"There's a lot of muscles that run from the shoulder straight up to the back of the head and to the base of the skull. So if those muscles get tight and get overused, it can create what they call tension headaches," he said. 

To prevent injury, Lui recommends making some adjustments to your space.

"You kind of have to get creative sometimes … Stack up your old textbooks and elevate the laptop" to prevent slouching forward.

Then, if possible, use an external keyboard and a mouse to allow your elbows and wrists to rest at about 90 degrees.

Laing says you can also use something like a rolled-up sweater behind your lower back and just above your hips, for extra support.

During a recent visit, Laing showed Decordova what a more ergonomic work-from-home set-up would look like, including extra back support, an elevated monitor and a separate keyboard. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

To get your hands on proper equipment, try your employer first. Some companies will provide supplies if you ask, while others may require a note from a physiotherapist or a doctor.

According to a spokesperson with the Ministry of Labour: "An employer does not have control over a worker's private residence. Therefore, it is not reasonable to hold employers responsible for health and safety violations in private homes. Hence, work done by the owner or occupants in a private residence are not covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act."

Still, the Ministry says they are committed to promoting safe and healthy work environments.

But Christine Arnott, the public affairs manager with the Work and Safety Insurance Board of Ontario (WSIB), says if you feel you've developed an injury as a result of their job, you should always report a claim.

"It is the WSIB's responsibility to determine if a claim is work-related … Every decision we make will take into consideration the unique facts and circumstances of the case," she said.

Arnott can't say how many claims the WSIB has received since March as a result of work-from-home injuries, but says the rate of new claims actually decreased significantly in that time period.

Preventative exercises

Laing, the physiotherapist, says if you're working at home, it's worthwhile to invest in a proper work set-up.

"For the foreseeable future, this is going to be our new normal."

But if a home office upgrade isn't possible, he recommends trying some simple exercises that don't require any equipment.

WATCH: Laing and his client, Fegan Decordova, demonstrate three exercises to help prevent injury.

Physiotherapist Matthew Laing and his client, Fegan Decordova, demonstrate how to do a wall angel, a neck tuck and a cobra pose. 2:11

If all else fails, at least try to incorporate a bit more movement into your day.

"The problem is when you're only getting out of bed and you're going to your kitchen to work and then going back to your couch to rest and then back to your bed to go to sleep for the night, there's not enough movement in our body," Laing said.

"Motion is lotion when it comes to the body."

With files from Sannah Choi

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