Orthopaedics is the area of medicine that focuses on the care of our musculoskeletal system: muscles, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons. It is the science that keeps people pain-free and moving.
Being a keen athlete myself, it has been my passion to keep patients healthy, moving and able to indulge in the activities they love.
While not everyone is involved in sport, this past year has often felt like we’re all running an endurance race, one with an ever-changing finish line. This new reality has extended to my patient base. While I continue to see patients who have age-related conditions, athletes struggling with injuries, those who have had accidents and those who have enthusiastically taken up a physical activity, less expected was the flood of patients with injuries that stem from a more mundane new reality: working from home.
The importance of good posture
When we repurposed our homes into not only an office but also a school, gym and an entertainment centre all rolled into one, little thought was given to the hidden hazards lurking under every table.
The blurring of personal, professional and academic lives has taken a toll on both our mental and physical health.
I like to compare the musculoskeletal system to an orchestra. When well-tuned, it sounds beautiful and is enjoyable; however, even one broken instrument can cause the whole system to go out of tune. In other words, one muscle group that’s out of sync can induce pain and injury in other parts of the musculoskeletal system, with complementary muscle groups turning against each other.
Awareness, then, of the right posture, plus common WFH injuries and symptoms, is important for both prevention and treatment.
Common WFH injuries
Neck, shoulder and lower back issues are the most common complaints I've seen as a result of WFH. These can be caused by many things including poor posture, working from surfaces that compromise the posture and / or an unsupportive chair.
Tendinitis is the inflammation of a tendon, the thick fibrous cords that connect muscle to bone. This often presents as a dull ache and, although it can seem like a sudden injury, it often develops over time with repetitive action or being in an awkward position for an extended period. Without treatment, tendinitis can lead to rupture tendons which, in turn, may require surgery.
Tennis elbow is a muscle strain injury often linked to overuse or repeated contraction of the forearm muscles that you use to straighten or raise your hand or wrist. As the name suggests, the condition is usually a result of poor technique while playing tennis, but it can also be triggered by prolonged use of a keyboard or mouse on a low table.
Muscle spasms. These are not always painful, but shouldn't be ignored as they're often a sign that something is off.
While the most visible culprit is the lack of correct furniture, placing the blame solely on your dining room set – that was never meant to moonlight as a desk – would be oversimplifying the matter. In fact, the blurring of home, office and gym has left many of us at once stressed and sedentary and that, combined with a lack of proper office equipment, makes us vulnerable to musculoskeletal injury.
The good news is that these WFH injuries are preventable with some easy steps that not only avoid injury, but also may alleviate stress.
Preventing WFH injuries
Preventing WFH injuries doesn’t need to be complicated or costly if you follow these four steps.
Establish physical and mental boundaries. Long hours combined with a poor home office set-up and stress is a recipe for orthopaedic injury. Establish your workspace away from common living areas and children who are remotely learning. Create a routine whereby you avoid working longer than usual. Schedule in multiple short breaks, which also include time away from family responsibilities, allowing you to destress both physically and mentally. In most cases, homeschooling and childcare often falls to one working-from-home parent more than the other. If this is the case, set up a schedule between caregivers to ensure the responsibility is shared. Setting these boundaries will lower physical and mental stress, and help you navigate the responsibilities of combining career and family under the same roof.
Invest in your home office. Put in time, effort and a little money into your work set-up. Ideally, when seated, your spine should be straight and the small of the back well supported; your ears should be over your shoulders, and not in front; elbows should be by your sides; and your feet should be flat on the floor. An ergonomic chair with full back support is key.
Other pieces of useful equipment include a lumbar pillow (or rolled towel), wrist pads (or hand towels) and a foot stand (or stack of books). A laptop stand and separate keyboard are also advisable.
Don't stop moving. Regular movements and gentle stretching may seem simple, but when people are working from home, they often don't move as much as if they were in an office. Start the workday with gentle stretching and set a timer to ensure you take a brief stroll every hour. Fit in a daily walk or yoga and, if you are doing strength training, ensure you have the right equipment and alternate between muscle groups.
Hydrate through the day. There is a correlation between dehydration and orthopaedic injuries, as water helps to avoid muscle fatigue and ensures your joints are lubricated. Always have a fresh glass of water sitting on your desk and drink a minimum of two litres a day.
These precautions aside, there is a misconception that you should see an orthopaedic doctor only when there is a problem. Regular visits – once a year if you’re under 40 and twice annually if you’re over 40 – can circumvent myriad problems that are often harder to treat than they are to prevent.
Dr George Varghese is a specialist orthopaedic surgeon at Al Zahra Hospital Dubai and shares his injury-prevention tips and tricks on orthosportsdxb.com.