Staying at home means more time doing things that your body’s not used to doing, which may be why your back’s starting to ache. Sound familiar? One of these habits might be the culprit.

By Karen Asp
June 30, 2020
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Say you’ve been spending a lot of time (or all your time) at home recently, and a new issue has popped up: Your back has begun aching. Is it coincidence, or could your new stay-at-home life be causing issues?

It may be the latter. Since the pandemic, “we’ve seen a high incidence of complaints of neck and back pain,” says Brian A. Cole, MD, FAAOS, orthopedic surgeon at Englewood Spine Associates in Englewood, N.J. Even before the pandemic, back pain was common: The average individual experiences one to two episodes of back pain per year, which can start in your 20s and be a recurring problem that gets triggered by various events in life. Fortunately, though, most back pain resolves by six weeks, Dr. Cole says.

So what habits are you doing at home that might make that back ache more? Here are seven to keep on your radar:

Why it’s a pain in your back: Now that you’re working from home more frequently (or always), you’ve no doubt found some interesting spots to set up your office, your bed included. Yet if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to sink into a semi-reclined position, which can stress the lower back, Dr. Cole says.

The solution: Maintain the natural curve of the spine by placing an additional pillow behind your lumbar spine, Dr. Cole says. You might even purchase a reading backrest pillow to make your “office” more comfortable.

Why it’s a pain in your back: “Studies suggest that poor sleep quality is associated with acute low back pain,” Dr. Cole says. While nobody knows exactly what the connection between the two is, it’s a fact that daily activities can strain the body, and rest is an important component of soft tissue recovery. If you’re not sleeping well, you’re not giving your body the ability to recover.

The solution: If you’ve having trouble sleeping, talk with your primary care physician to rule out sleep disorders or other medical conditions like sleep apnea and GERD, Dr. Cole says. Otherwise, if you’re waking up with pain, two culprits might be your body position during sleep or your mattress. Sleeping face down can aggravate spine conditions like spinal stenosis, so if you have that, try to find a more comfortable position. And if you notice a depression or dip when you look at your mattress, it should be replaced or else your spine will follow suit. “The mattress should be firm enough to support your weight and at the same time, soft enough to accommodate the curves of your body,” Dr. Cole says.  

Why it’s a pain in your back: Those Netflix binges can wreak havoc on your back, especially if your back is sinking into the couch. Contrary to what you might think, “it’s not so much a matter of how long you sit, but how you’re sitting,” Dr. Cole says.

The solution: When sitting, make sure you have solid support on your lower back. You should feel the support behind your low back, Dr. Cole says.

Why it’s a pain in your back: Old shoes may be so worn that they don’t offer adequate arch support or protect your feet from rolling in or out as you walk, says Tammy Penhollow, DO, a pain management specialist in the greater Phoenix, Ariz. area. However, a shoe with good arch support will prevent your feet from rolling in as you stand and move, which will help maintain the alignment of your legs, hips, and back. 

The solution: Buy a pair of shoes with support designed for your specific arch. How do you know? A simple test will tell you if you have flat feet or a high arch, Dr. Penhollow says. Get your feet wet and step on cool concrete to see the outline your foot makes. If you can see only the outside of your foot, you probably have a high arch. If you see the ball of your foot, heel and outside of your foot, you most likely have a normal arch. Meanwhile, if you see the whole foot, including the inside, assume you have a low arch or flat feet.

Why it’s a pain in your back: Improper lifting and twisting techniques—think hefting bags of soil, plants, and pots—can result in acute strain in the low back. “Lifting loads the spine while the twisting motion creates more strain in the side-to-side planes of motion,” Dr. Penhollow says.

The solution: Practice safe lifting techniques, including bending at the knees versus the waist to lift from the ground, keeping items close to the chest, and avoiding twisting the upper body while lifting. Then work on building those core muscles to help protect the back from injury. One of the most effective exercises? A forearm plank. To do it, lie face down on the floor and prop yourself up on your elbows, elbows beneath shoulders. Extend your legs behind you and lift your hips off the floor so your body is in one long line (if this is too difficult, start on your knees). Hold 10 seconds to start and work up to two or three repetitions of 60 to 90 seconds. (Learn more about how to do a plank properly.)

Why it’s a pain in your back: You’re most likely standing on a hard surface for long periods of time, and if you’re not wearing supportive shoes or you’re going barefoot, you can get heel pain, especially if you have high or flat arches, Dr. Penhollow says. When that happens, you change how you stand and walk, which can affect your entire lower body from your ankles to your back. 

The solution: Avoid cooking barefoot: Wear supportive shoes instead. Also, use good posture as you prepare food, being careful not to hunch over counters. Standing closer to the counter should help you stay more upright. And when you need a break, take it.

Why it’s a pain in your back: Working from home now? Not only are you probably cramming more work into that same eight-hour work day, you’re also likely not getting up and moving around as much. The problem? “Sitting puts 40 percent more pressure on your spine than standing,” Dr. Cole says.

The solution: When sitting, check the space between your back and the chair, and if there’s a gap, fill it with a pillow or lumbar roll, which will put you in a more balanced position, Dr. Cole says. Then take frequent stretching breaks as you sit. Follow Dr. Cole’s lead and stretch forward, hugging your knees for a minute as you sit to open up the back of the spine. Then stand and arch your back by bringing your stomach as far forward as you can. Finally, reach side to side with your hands while standing, trying to reach as far down your side thigh as you can, and then rotate the spine. Do all of these moves every hour—set an alarm if necessary—to minimize potential aches.