Sarah’s Health Notes: Couch Slouch = Couch Ouch!
‘I’m in agony,’ screamed the email from a young mum, who’s working at home. ‘It’s worst between my shoulder blades. It feels like a pain in my lungs when I take a deep breath or twist. My chest is tight, too.’
Chiropractor Dominic Cheetham identified the cause pretty quickly – the children were at the table so ’Anna’ was WFS (working from sofa) on a laptop, day after painful day. To add to the postural problems, she was stressed out trying to home school the children as she tried to work, so her whole body was tense, waiting for the next red alert.
Dr Cheetham isn’t surprised. ‘An April 2020 review of 2,000 workers from Ascenti [a leading UK physiotherapy group and ergonomics expert] reported that nearly half of people are working from home since the first lockdown. That’s double the previous number – and probably more since then. Over half of these new home workers don't have the equipment they had in their workplace, such as an office desk, adjustable chair, separate monitor and keyboard.’
Worryingly, for 72% the most popular place to work is indeed the sofa, followed by the bed with 56% (the worst place to work from, according to Dominic). And the most popular ‘desk’ for 65% of sofa-workers is their lap. ‘The sofa is just about the worst place to work and women are more likely than men to base themselves on their couch.’
You may love your cushy sofa but it’s really no good to work from (don’t blame the manufacturers – it was never designed for that). ‘The comfier the sofa the more damaging it is for your muscular-skeletal system, as the soft upholstery doesn't give the spine and neck the support it needs’ says Dominic.
‘Sofas encourage us to slump, rounding the shoulders and sinking our heads forwards, which places a strain on the muscles, ligaments and joints and discs of the neck and spine,’ he explains. ‘Remember that the average human head weighs around 5-6kg, more than most newborn babies. That weight is balanced on just seven vertebrae in your neck and supported by around 20 muscles. As your head leans down to look at the laptop screen, there is tremendous strain through the base of the neck and on the upper and mid areas of the back.’
Anna’s rib and chest pain was caused by a combination of problems. Her muscles were being strained across the back of her neck and her rib cage and upper/mid back, and her spinal ligaments were overstretched. Meanwhile the muscles at the front of her neck and across her chest were shortened, Dominic says.
What’s more, WFH – whether that’s from your sofa, bed or even at a proper desk - means we’re having far fewer ‘water cooler’ moments where we stand up, stretch and move around. Staying fixed in poor seating positions increases our blood sugar levels and less fat is broken down so there’s a greater risk of the onset of heart disease and diabetes. It can also affect digestion and vision (which I will be writing about shortly).
On the beauty front, slouching over a laptop is a quick route to ‘tech neck’, not just aches and pains but sags and bags, lines and wrinkles from jawline through neck to décolletage.
WHAT TO DO
If you can’t work at a desk with proper office equipment, these suggestions should help.
- If you have to use your sofa, put firm cushions in the small of our back so they support you to sit on the edge, with your feet firmly on the floor. Your upper legs should be sloping down slightly to your knees.
- Look for a portable laptop desk/table with foldable legs; aka laptop bed table so you can put your screen at eye level. There’s a range on Amazon.
- The top of your screen should be at eye height when you are sitting up straight and looking straight ahead. (Both important those last two: twisting can cause more problems.)
- If you haven’t got a laptop table yet, as a temporary measure, put a stack of cushions on your knees and rest your laptop on these so your screen is higher and you don't have to lean so far forwards and down.
- Buy a separate keyboard and mouse (see Equipment below) and put these on a board raised on some cushions or pillows on your lap. As much as possible, replicate the position you would be in sitting at an office desk using a desktop computer.
- If you are working in the same room as a TV, try using that screen as your monitor, with your laptop as the keyboard, raised either on a stand or a pillow/cushion.
- If your eyes are feeling sore, you’re frowning and you find yourself poking your head forward at the screen like a tortoise, make the type bigger (I’m on 150% typing this) and adjust the brightness so you can see more easily.
Dominic Cheetham suggests looking at these items:
Grandma Shark Laptop Table, £43.99 from Amazon
Wireless Keyboard with numeric keypad, £26.99 from Amazon
TeckNet Bluetooth Mouse, £14.99
Magnesium Oil Original Spray, £12.20 for 100ml: apply 4 sprays am/pm for one month to restore magnesium levels; use as needed to relax muscles when in pain.
BetterYou Magnesium Oil Original Flakes; also now available as Magnesium Muscle Mineral Bath Flakes, infused with essential oils of lemon and rosemary, and Magnesium Sleep Mineral Bath Flakes, with lavender and chamomile; all £9.95 for 1kg.
Ice pack alternated with heat pack: a range of reusable ice packs, which can be used hot or cold, is available on Amazon in different sizes including a whole back one.
Dominic recommends these three stretches to help calm and soothe your aches and pains. You can see them with photographs here, demonstrated by Canadian chiropractor Dr Liz Egbogah. (It’s really worth looking at the pix – just makes it easier to see what to do.)
Pectoral stretch Interlock your hands behind your back, palms up, keeping your arms straight while pulling your hands down toward to ground. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for five seconds while keeping your body in an upright position. You should feel a comfortable stretch through your chest. Do this several times each day.
What it does By releasing tight pectoral muscles, the shoulders will visibly drop and move backward, combatting the rounded hunch effect that is more prominent as we age.
Thoracic extension Stand or sit in a chair and clasp both hands behind your head. Gently arch backward, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for five seconds. You should feel a comfortable stretch through your chest. Do this several times each day.
What it does: reduces hunching in the middle back, opens up the chest and allows you to take in deeper breaths. It also helps to improve upper body mobility.
Back bends Stand with your feet planted firmly on the ground and your hands behind your hips for support. Look up to the ceiling and take a deep breath in. As you exhale, slowly and gently bend backwards. Take a few breaths while you’re in the back bend, then slowly come back up to standing. As you feel more comfortable with this exercise you can bring your arms overhead while you bend.
What it does: takes pressure off your spine. Looking up to the ceiling corrects misaligned forward head posture, too, making you stand up straighter.