Even as we learn to live with the persistent spread of COVID-19 in Arizona and nationwide, the pandemic’s repercussions will likely be evident for years to come. One such outcome is the wider adoption of remote work, with approximately 45% of Americans now telecommuting either all or part of the time.
This means that for some people office furniture may have been replaced by makeshift desks and household chairs, or even a spot working from a sofa or bed. Such setups typically lack the same ergonomic design as a traditional office, and over time can contribute to an array of health issues, including back pain or other orthopedic problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis.
In fact, an estimated 50% of U.S. adults are affected by so-called musculoskeletal conditions, with associated treatments for these issues accounting for 10% of annual medical expenses, according to a 2020 Healthcare Economics analysis of UnitedHealthcare claims. When it comes to back issues, about 80% of people experience this condition at least once during their lifetime.
While sometimes back pain and other orthopedic problems can’t be avoided due to previous injuries or other factors, it’s important for people to focus on their CORE, which stands for correct posture, overweight (avoid it), relax and exercise. To build on that concept, here are five strategies and evidence-based care methods to consider to help prevent or treat this common issue.
Focus on Posture. Whether you are now working at the kitchen table or on the couch, focusing on proper posture may help. Make sure you are sitting up straight with your knees at a 90-degree angle, with your shoulders in a straight line over your hips and your ears directly over your shoulders. If you’re working at a computer, adjust the screen height to eye level and consider elevating the keyboard to help keep your hands, wrists and forearms in line and parallel to the floor. Also, note how often you are on the phone, which may contribute to poor neck posture. Instead of tilting your chin down, raise the device to eye level and avoid tucking it between your ear and shoulder, or opt for a speakerphone or headset.
Take Breaks. You may notice you feel sore even if you maintain good posture throughout your workday. If you stay in one spot for too long, your muscles and joints may get stiff. Consider taking quick breaks every 30 minutes to get up and stretch or walk around. This may promote better blood flow for your muscles and joints, and it may also give your eyes and mind a break.
Stay Active. While some people with back pain or other muscular issues may be tempted to consider rest, staying active in many cases may be the best option. Low impact activities to consider include walking and swimming, while research indicates that strengthening leg muscles may also prove helpful. You might also try yoga and tai chi, as they’ve been shown to ease moderate to severe back pain. If time is a factor, a brief walk at lunch or going up and down the stairs a few times can help you stay active.
Eat a Healthier Diet. The bones, muscles, discs and other structures in your back need proper nutrition to help support your body. Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats may help reduce inflammation, often a contributing factor to chronic back pain. Eating a healthier diet may also help you maintain a healthy weight, which may also reduce your risk for back pain.
Examine Your Options. The American College of Physicians recommends exercise-based therapies first, including nonsurgical options such as physical therapy, chiropractic care, acupuncture and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs. To make access even more convenient, new virtual physical therapy options have emerged, including some that provide users with on-demand, 24/7 exercise feedback powered by artificial intelligence. These noninvasive options, which in some cases may be included as part of your health benefit plan, may help 95% of people with low back pain recover after 12 weeks. Muscle relaxants should be a secondary option, and imaging (such as an MRI) and surgery should be a last resort. However, certain “red-flag” symptoms, such as fever or loss of bladder and bowel control, may require immediate testing and intervention.
While surgeries can be beneficial to treat back pain or other orthopedic issues, a recent study found that some treatments are no more effective than noninvasive options such as exercise and physical therapy. Even for people with chronic back pain, only a small percentage may need imaging or surgery. Taking these preventive steps—and selecting evidence-based care approaches when issues arise—may help reduce the risks and complications associated with back pain and other orthopedic issues.
Dr. Russell Amundson is national medical director for United Healthcare.