Dr Yue Wai Mun
Where once WFH was unfamiliar to many of us, the current COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to convert parts of our home into make-shift working spaces.
However, many of our homes were never set up to support an ergonomic work environment to provide maximum comfort and optimal work efficiency. For most of us, our homes are designed for cooking, meals, lounging and quality time with family and friends in mind, not for work.
As a result, WFH injuries related to backaches and sprains have increased significantly in Singapore, with neck and backaches among the chief complaints. To prevent this from happening, we look at what causes these aches and pains.
Learn about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and taking care of your healthcare needs.
A poorly set-up workspace can lead to various injuries such as backaches, neck pain and strain, and wrist strains. Additionally, working in this sort of environment for long hours – typically 7 – 8 hours a day, at a stretch – is likely to further aggravate the situation.
A kitchen table may be too high whilst the coffee table is definitely too low to serve as a desk.
When the workstation is high, you are likely to compensate by shrugging your shoulders, elevating your arms or resting your forearms on the hard edge of the table.
In contrast, working on a surface that is too low would cause you to lean forward or hunch over, or extend your arms too far forward, leaving your back unsupported. All these can lead to tension in the shoulders, neck, elbows and wrists, causing discomfort, muscle soreness and body stiffness and injury.
For this reason, if you do not have an actual work desk and need to choose between the coffee table or the dining table, the dining table may be more suitable.
Most chairs in our home may be too low or too high for the chosen workspace, and may not have lumbar (lower back) support. This can affect the alignment of the spine as we sit for long hours at our makeshift work stations. This means the couch and bed are hardly ideal as they do not provide proper back support.
Originally created for convenience and use during travel, the laptop is less than ideal to be used for long hours at a desk. Even when the screen is at the right level, the keyboard may be too low. Get that right, and the screen becomes too high. Therefore, it becomes a trade-off between stressing your neck or, hands or wrists.
A less-than-ideal workspace will affect your posture, leading to assorted aches and pains.
It may start with discomfort and tightness that progress to pains in your upper and lower back, shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands. If these are not addressed either by preventive measures or seeing a healthcare provider such as an orthopaedic specialist, it may progress to chronic conditions that affect your muscles, tendons, and bones.
Common conditions caused by poor posture include:
Muscle and tendon strains can occur when there is a sudden twist, pull or tear movements cause injury to the muscles or tendons. With back pain due to strains, the muscles and tendons that support the spine are affected.
When an individual adopts poor posture due to a less than ideal workstation, it causes undue stress to these muscles, leading to a strain.
If the stress to these muscles and tendons are prolonged or become worse, you may develop additional signs such as:
The carpal tunnel is a narrow tube in the wrist that contains tendons to the fingers and the median nerve. Repeated movements or stress to the wrist causes this narrow tube to get inflamed and narrow, compressing on the structures and nerves within it.
The resulting symptoms triggered by the narrowing of the carpal tunnel is known as carpal tunnel syndrome.
If not managed early, this may become a chronic issue, leading to weakness in the hand and the inability to perform basic tasks such as buttoning a shirt, handling small objects, grasping a steering wheel, or holding a book to read.
This occurs when there is an inflammation in the tendons. Tendonitis can also affect the tendons in the neck due to strain from poor posture, sitting at the computer and also, sleeping in an awkward position.
Because the neck and shoulders are connected, neck tendonitis can also cause pain in the shoulder and the arm.
Improper postures maintained over long hours every day can also cause problems in your spine due to chronic muscle tension and compression. Long-term effects of this compression to the spin can result in the compression of the joints between the vertebral bones and its discs which may lead to degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, and pinched nerves.
Other than discomfort or muscle stiffness/tightness, look out for other symptoms such as numbness and tingling. These are usually the earliest signs that you might want to address with your doctor.
The key is to keep your body in a neutral, relaxed position.
Preventing an injury should always be a priority. Here are some tips to help you do so.
If you display any of the signs of WFH injuries, make an appointment with an orthopaedic specialist so that it can be diagnosed and managed effectively.