Why COVID-19 is proving to be a real pain in the neck (& back), and what you can do about it!
At the time of writing this blog, Melbourne is still in COVID-19 Stage 4 restrictions, which brings significant challenges to work-life, home-life & health. In the past 3-4 months, I have seen more people present to the clinic with acute neck & back pain, than in any other time period in my 17 years of practice. In discussion with other colleagues, they are also seeing the same thing. Why is this?
Firstly we need to acknowledge that the cause for neck & back pain is often multifactorial (triggered by lots of different things), so in this blog we will focus on some of the main contributing factors to back & neck pain that are attributed to COVID-19.
1. Poor workplace Ergonomics
According to statistics from June, over ⅓ of Australia’s workforce have been working from home. Whilst some have found this to be a favourable alternative, there are a number of downsides to this arrangement which many are now experiencing. Workers that have previously been using workstations & chairs that have been fit for them are now working on kitchen tables and sitting on dining room chairs, which can please increased strain on the neck and back.
How to get around this?
Ensuring that you have a good desk & home office setup. We can certainly offer advice to those in need. For other tips about working from home, head to our previous blog here
2. Reduced incidental activity:
Incidental exercise is defined as unstructured activity taken during the day, such as walking for transport, walking around the workplace, housework and the performance of activities of daily living. With working from home, most of this incidental activity has been wiped out. Instead of walking to the train station and moving around the office, often the furthest people are now moving are from the study to the kitchen or bathroom! We have found this easily demonstrated in our patients wearing activity monitors. Anecdotally we have seen countless times people used to cover 10,000 steps in their workday, are now hovering around 3,000, a staggering 70% drop in activity. In fact, we wrote in our previous blog in May here, that data released by Fitbit early in the pandemic showed a global decline in step count. Movement (and in particular walking) can be very therapeutic for low back pain, and for some this loss in activity has been a trigger for their back pain.
3. Decline in exercise:
It has been great to see so many people out on the bike paths cycling, walking and running, but not everyone has increased their daily activity. Closure of gyms and cessation of organized sport has seen many people displaced from their usual physical exercise. Tied in with incidental activity, a decline in exercise results in less movement, loss of strength & fitness, and can worsen mental health (as discussed below). What we have also seen in some individuals, is that they might be exercising 60mins every day, but then for the remaining 15 hours they are awake they are doing very little movement.
How to rectify this lack of incidental activity & exercise?
Simply get moving, and move frequently! Try and perform some form of movement every 45mins throughout the day. Get out for a walk, and when possible instead of doing a 60min walk, break it up into 2-3 smaller walks during the day which will help to ensure you do not have large chunks of sedentary time throughout the day. For other suggestions on what exercise you can be doing, head to our previous blog here.
4. Increased mental stress:
Since March, many Australians have been impacted by fear, anxiety and panic about coronavirus (COVID-19). Change in working environment, loss of employment, financial uncertainty, homeschooling & parenting duties have placed significant mental stress on our population, with estimates of between 25% to 33% of the community experiencing high levels of worry and anxiety during similar pandemics. Those with pre-existing anxiety disorders, and other mental health disorders (e.g., depression, and post-traumatic stress) are at risk of experiencing higher anxiety levels during the COVID-19 outbreak. Increased stress & anxiety can certainly contribute to neck & back pain.
What can be done to help with stress & anxiety?
Look after your physical health: Exercising & eating well help us stay physically & mentally healthy
Ensuring adequate sleep (upwards of 7-8 hours per night)
Staying connected with family & friends. We might not be able to meet face to face, but phone & video calls can help keep in touch.
Seek support! For those needing assistance, the government is offering an additional 10 Medicare subsidised psychological therapy sessions for people subjected to further restrictions in areas impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Please speak to your GP about creating a mental health plan
5. Poor Dietary choices:
With greater time spent at home, and being closer to the fridge, many people have increased the food intake. Combine this with a decrease in activity, comfort eating, increased alcohol intake and a craving for high-calorie foods (high sugar, high-fat junk food), it’s not surprising that we have seen many people put on “COVID kilos”. This is not ideal for neck & back pain: it will place greater mechanical strain on the body, but also contribute to an increase in inflammation in the body.
Tips to improve diet
Don’t have junk foods available in the house: if they aren’t there, you can’t eat them!
Preplan your weekly meals: this will reduce the reliance on takeaway food
Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
Drink more water
Keep alcoholic drinks to a minimum. They are NOT a necessary part of your diet