WFH and heal my back
April 9, 2020 11:49 AM   Subscribe

So my suddenly sedentary four weeks of work from home are destroying my lower back. What are you best go-to tips to alleviate discomfort and strengthen what needs strengthening in the short term given current limitations? Physical tips--especially what to do while (or before) walking--are welcome, but so is anything to deal with the mental anxieties, too.

I went from being reasonably active (weightlifting at the gym 2x/week, etc, lots of walking including on really hilly trails) to stuck at my computer 11+ hours a day in the last month. And I'm horrified at how quickly my body has fallen apart, specifically my lower back. I've been trying to go for walks in my neighborhood everyday but my lower back is getting painfully stiff after only 5-10 minutes! Things like vacuuming the house or putting things away in lower drawers have also become painful. What can I do to fix this in the short term until we can all get back to normal? I'd like to both make it stop hurting without popping Advil all day, and I'd like to stretch and strengthen whatever needs it most to stop this. Additionally, any advice for not freaking out about how I've broken myself? Any good stories about those exercise ball office chairs or other tips for making my home workspace more back-friendly?
posted by TwoStride to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: PS: female-bodied and very plus-size, if that makes any difference (so some of the "just lie on the floor" tips don't really work with my shape).
posted by TwoStride at 11:52 AM on April 9, 2020

I have lower back problems, and work a computer/desk job from home. The main thing for me is changing positions regularly. Obviously exactly what that looks like for you depends on your setup and your preferences, but for me it's includes sitting vs. standing (I have an adjustable desk), actively walking around during meetings when I can (I have a wireless headset), and also sometimes working in other parts of the house like the couch, dining room, or back yard. Obviously the couch and outdoor chairs are FAR less "ergonomic" than my fancy desk chair, but I find that the variety is more helpful to me than sitting all day in my ergononic office chair.

I'll probably be an outlier and say that I am skeptical about the usefulness of stretching, at least for my problems. My various physical therapists over the years have given me a bunch of stretches to do, and while I try to do them regularly, I can't really tell a difference when I skip them, and they never seem to do much to alleviate pain when I have it.
posted by primethyme at 12:15 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Female-bodied plus-size person who always works from home here. My ideas:

-- Do you have the ability to change up your computer setup? Meaning, laptop? If yes, find all the acceptable working spots in your home and then switch among them hourly. Bonus if you have anything that can work as a standing desk, even for just a few minutes at a time. (I'm also short, so: for standing possibilities, factor in shoes that can help you be taller if needed.)

-- Even if you can't change your computer setup, make absolutely sure you're taking a lot of breaks. Use a timer to make sure you do it. One easy metric: once an hour make sure you take 250 steps (this is doable inside the house, as oppsed to "taking a walk").

-- Several times a day, do a few very gentle postural exercises. This is less about "getting exercise" and more about "putting myself and my back ino a good position for a few minutes." Try bird dog; lying on your back and pulling your knee toward your chest; and the Brugger relief position.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:17 PM on April 9, 2020 [6 favorites]

I have switched to spending time with a laptop at a desk and putting it on a bookshelf with a separate keyboard and mouse as a "standing desk". Has helped my posture and back. Just remember to start with small time periods, and make sure you have comfortable shoes or a mat to stand on.
posted by nickggully at 12:21 PM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you have this problem at home and didn't have this problem at work, it's likely to be the chair you're sitting on now. Can you address that?
posted by DarlingBri at 12:24 PM on April 9, 2020 [4 favorites]

My lower back got suuuuper stiff after a week of work from home. (I have an old injury that flares up.) I started doing lunchtime yoga with my son and it helped a ton. There are so many yoga routines in Youtube. I do one by myself specifically for lower back pain.
posted by Aquifer at 12:36 PM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Seconding yoga. The Yoga with Adriene videos on YouTube are approachable and can accommodate for any and all skill levels. Adriene posts videos specific to back pain, which are great! She also has some monthlong challenges that help with general strength. From one ouchy backed person to another, hope you feel better soon!
posted by sucre at 12:57 PM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

I bought my office chair out of storage and it made a huge difference.

While I go on the same# of walks, my steps still basically cut in half working from home largely due to not taking breaks between meetings. So walking around the living room/kitchen even if it feels weird between one meeting and the next can help.
posted by typecloud at 1:16 PM on April 9, 2020

As someone with life-long lower back trouble I have found that keeping my legs stretched out -- particularly via inner thigh stretches and toe touches -- makes a world of difference when walking.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:27 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you're able to do it, the one thing that's helped more than anything else with my own lower back pain is the plank exercise.
posted by davcoo at 1:50 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sudden onset bad lower back pain is often caused by sitting in a chair that has a seat which tilts forward. If you can't adjust your seat consider putting things on the seat itself so that there is a wedge countering any tilt. Many layers of folded fabric is good for adjusting a tilt like this with fewer layers at the back gradually increasing to many at the front. A foot stool can also help as it will raise the knees but may not be possible under some desks.

If the floor is impractical for you to lie down for exercises, try doing posture exercises against a wall to correct your pelvic tilt.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:59 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Online barre classes are my fix for sitting at a desk- a lot of them are short (because you will die otherwise) so you can do a few 10 or 20 minute sets a day. For me, they un-kink the pelvis and lower back and get those leg muscles pumping blood again. You can find some routines free or join a club for $20-30 a month.

Also- are you snacking on weird foods you don't normally eat? Sometimes back pain is indigestion. I personally have eaten my own bodyweight in snacks since the quarantine started and my desk moved next to my fridge including some really odd things.
posted by fshgrl at 1:59 PM on April 9, 2020

This is my standard answer for this problem, so apologies here. You need to strengthen your core. Humans weren’t meant to sit for long periods of time, it is murder on a weak lower back. So basically, lots of Pilates (there’s heaps of videos online). You’ll be surprised at how quickly you see results. Also if there’s any way you can keep walking, like with a treadmill, that will help too.
posted by Jubey at 3:32 PM on April 9, 2020

Floor time. Flat on the back with the knees bent, feet on the ground. Just be there, let everything reorient. Then pulling one knee towards the chest, very very gentle. Other. Both. Feel all the muscles stretch and loosen. All the exercises are great but just a few minutes on a firm surface can be incredibly effective.
posted by sammyo at 5:04 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

I just got home 20 minutes ago from urgent care, where I had to get a steroid shot and prescription painkillers/muscle relaxant for sudden, excruciating back pain. I've been working from home for weeks now, sitting a whole bunch in non-supportive chairs, and felt twinges in my back - yesterday I bent over to pick up my son's toy and couldn't straighten back up and barely able to walk. Once my back has rested, the doctor recommended core strengthening and back stretching exercises, as recommended upthread.
posted by Everydayville at 5:43 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

An old CIA (I know, I know) exercise pamphlet for people in the field offices suggested (now this is going weird), maybe best in the shower, bending slightly over, hands on knees, and rotating your butt around, 15 times (3 groups of 5), clock and counter-, as if you were rotating a basketball in front of you. All I can say is, after decades of office sit-down work, I have plenty of problems, but none in the lower back. I wish I could get the image of pole dancers out of my head, though.
posted by Chitownfats at 7:36 PM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

I have found Legs Up the Wall helpful for my lower back issues.
posted by tuesdayschild at 8:12 PM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Sounds counterintuitive, but by far the best change I've ever made was to switch to a saddle chair. Specifically, this one. My core is pretty weak, but since day one, I could sit on this backless stool all day without even feeling it. Crazy. I believe the literature credits it partly to the way you're transferring much of the active work your lower back does — even in those high-tech ergonomic office chairs — to your legs, which are much more able to help deal with it. YMMV, but's been a life-changer for me, and I had tried everything. Good luck; I know how rough it is to have pain. I hope you find what works for you.
posted by Text TK at 8:12 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

You need a recliner and a laptop. Then a back massager that fits the recliner. Feet up, neck supported, some Ben-Gay till the pain subsides.
posted by watercarrier at 5:24 AM on April 10, 2020

One thing to bear in mind is there's more than one possible cause of back pain, so you have to identify the solution that works for your specific case. What fixes my back pain does not fix my brother-in-law's, even though our symptoms are somewhat similar.

For me the primary problem is tight hamstrings. This is partly due to lots of deadlifts and similar exercises, but the number one cause is sitting in a chair for too long. All the shifting positions in the world don't help, the only thing that really helps is getting out of the chair. In fact I can pretty much anticipate my back difficulties based solely on how long I was in the chair this week. So as others have indicated, look for ways to get out of your desk chair. Standing for a while, working in a different chair, lying on your back or stomach, all help. But ultimately the thing that helps me the most is simply working fewer hours, though I realize to have slow weeks where that's possible. my back discomfort has completely disappeared since recently I'm mostly watching kids instead of working.

There are other things that help, but not as much. Rolling up a towel or a couple of towels under my lower back when I sleep helps noticably after a few days. I make sure to get multiple good hamstring stretches after every workout. For me stretching is much more effective if I'm warmed up so do some activity and then do your stretches. Touching my toes for 60-90 seconds helps, as does using a band to lie on my back and stretch one hamstring at a time for the same amount of time.
posted by Tehhund at 7:10 AM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

I had serious back pain from laying on the floor and hauling my daughter around when she was small. Strengthening my core via deadlifts and squats made it vanish completely. So I would recommend squats and planks.

Yoga has always exacerbated my back pain when it’s already painful, but is a great preventative (though slower for me in that regard than squats/planks/deadlifts).
posted by Calibandage at 12:18 PM on April 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

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