Working from home and the stress of this year hasn't done our bodies any favors.

pain in back of head and neck
Credit: Getty Images

Too many of us have stories about struggling to access the care we need because of stigmas around race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, age, size, income, or condition. In our series Pain Today, we highlight these stories so that we can empower each other to advocate for our health—even when the medical community doesn’t.

I've had neck and shoulder pain for as long as I can remember. For years, I’ve understood it’s where I tend to hold all my stress, as soreness would often flare up around big deadlines or daunting projects. As a writer, this is only natural—I do spend the majority of my day hunched over a keyboard. But since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began, I've noticed that it’s escalated—to the point where I'm lying on a heating pad by the end of most days and spending too much on ibuprofen.

It’s safe to say that stress levels have been at an all-time high lately. I have found that a marble-sized knot has lodged itself in the space where my neck meets my hairline and made itself at home for over six months now. Dr. Alan Hirsch, an internal medicine specialist, says this is normal: “Stress causes tension. People tense their muscles up when they’re stressed, which causes pain." And with widespread WFH mandates fundamentally changing the way we go about our everyday lives, I figured I wasn’t alone in my expanded neck issues. “I’ve seen a massive increase in neck and low-back complaints since the shutdown and people working from home,” says chiropractor Dr. Casey Gubbels. “I didn’t realize it was going to be so abrupt, but every patient that’s come in here in recent months has had ‘the couch problem.’” Dr. Gubbels explains “the couch problem” as people spending way too many hours on the couch without taking breaks or changing positions. Yes, good-old Netflix is obviously causing some of this couch time to occur, but people are also working on laptops in non-ergonomic settings. 

A 2008 medical study in the European Spine Journal looked at a group of people without diagnosed chronic pain but who worked in computer-intensive careers. They found that, though not chronic, the group suffered rampantly from moderate levels of neck and back pain. “Sitting with your head bent over a computer causes a lot of strain on the muscles,” says Dr. Hirsch. “You’re always working to keep your head from falling forward; those muscles are constantly contracting.” In order to combat the muscle fatigue of countless hours in front of a laptop, Dr. Gubbels advises placing a sticky note on your screen or setting your phone timer with reminders to take breaks. “Every hour you should be doing at least 30 seconds to one minute of movement,” he says. “It’s not enough time to break the workflow, but it breaks the monotony of stationary positioning.” Our bodies aren’t used to operating without our regular commutes, lunch breaks, or generalized movement throughout the day, so it’s important to schedule that time as often as possible. 

neck and back pain
Credit: Getty Images

Though any movement at all is really the key, Dr. Gubbels does advise several specific exercises to free up neck tension. “Just like any other muscle, you have to train the neck to become conditioned to the situations you’re dealing with,” he says. Simple head rotations (ear to shoulder, ear to shoulder) or torso twists (stand up, stare on a point on the wall, square your hips to that point, and twist through the torso, without activating the neck muscles) work well. He recommends passive neck exercises so as not to upset an already sore area. Additionally, Dr. Hirsch advocates for yoga as a fantastic way to strengthen neck muscles, relieve bodily tension, and lower overall stress. With the immense array of online workout classes, staying home shouldn’t hinder your practice. 

But, for the unavoidable time we do have to spend in front of our computers these days, Dr. Gubbels is a major advocate for investing in a laptop stand and a wireless keyboard to maximize the ergonomics of the space you’re working with. Getting your computer screen to eye level so you’re not spending all day looking down is hugely important, too. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the room for a home office, but he suggests using stacks of books or kitchen pots to prop up your laptop in a pinch. The key to getting your screen higher is that you also want to keep your shoulders lowered. To find the best position for a wireless keyboard, he suggests “sitting erect, dropping your shoulders to your sides so you feel relaxed, and then bending straight up from your elbows.” Also, make sure to use a pillow behind your low back, if needed, to minimize slouching. 

At the end of the day, if you’re just in need of some instant relief, I’ve personally found certain topical treatments like BioFreeze to be temporarily soothing. I’ve also noticed that my neck pain often correlates with a sore throat, so I’ve recently started using a humidifier and Vicks VapoRub on my chest and neck at night. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Gubbels also notes that sleep is the most important time for the body to repair damaged tissue and decrease stress levels (a reminder I’m guilty of frequently requiring). But the main thing that's been helping me is experimenting with different CBD creams, a proven salve for treating muscle pain. “Anything you can put into your body that comes from a natural source is inevitably going to be better for you than something synthetic,” explains Dr. Gubbels, an advocate for incorporating CBD into your wellness routine. 

The most important thing I learned from speaking with Dr. Hirsch and Dr. Gubbels is to be proactive about your pain. “You don’t perceive the issue in the moment, until the body starts yelling at you,” says Dr. Gubbels. That’s why setting daily reminders to stretch, getting outside for walks, and prioritizing moments of zen are not only imperative to healing our muscle pains but also to ensuring our overall health during these chaotic times.