My fragrance of choice for the past year is eau de menthol pain patch. I’ve had chronic back pain, but the cause is not a mystery: I hunch over my computer for hours at a time. Call it “online spine,” “computer-generated back pain,” or, in my case, “Mac back.”
Unlike “tech neck,” a common term for repetitive strain caused by looking down at phones and tablets, back pain caused by hunching over a computer can afflict the neck, shoulders and entire back, said Dr. Nnaemeka Echebiri, a physiatrist who specializes in spine and musculoskeletal medicine at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Backaches happen for a host of reasons and are best evaluated by your doctor, Dr. Echebiri said. But computer-related pain isn’t uncommon: A 2021 study of 2,000 people who worked on computers found that 48 percent had back and neck pain. And a 2021 meta-analysis suggested that prolonged sitting was a “significant risk factor” for lower back pain.
I asked Dr. Echebiri and other experts how to prevent pain and keep your back strong.
Assess your work space.
Make sure your workstation, whether it’s at home or elsewhere, is as ergonomically correct as possible, she said. Your arms should be positioned at right angles and your screen should be eye level, said Edward Wei, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I tell patients the cheapest option would be to get a stand for your laptop, or even a stack of books, and then a wireless keyboard,” Dr. Wei said.
And be mindful of when you’re jutting your head forward or compressing your neck to look at the screen more closely — a common habit that was referred to as “neck scrunching” in a 2018 study in the journal Biofeedback. (Pain set in, researchers found, after just 30 seconds of scrunching.)
Take breaks — and embrace fidgeting.
If you really want to reduce chances of dealing with “online spine,” set a timer to get up and move every half-hour, if only for a few minutes, said Cara Prideaux, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic. “Any activity is better than none,” Dr. Prideaux said.
And, for the more sedentary among us, “micro-movement strategies,” like fidgeting, might help stave off certain kinds of back pain. In a small 2019 study, researchers found that people who were observed to have more “fidget frequency” had lower incidences of sitting-induced back pain. (Though they added that more research is needed to explore this connection.)
Stretch when pains strikes.
If your back and shoulders are beginning to throb, try these simple stretches from Jessamyn Stanley, author of “Every Body Yoga.” While seated, “take your right foot and cross it over your left knee,” Stanley said. “Fold forward over your leg, if it feels comfortable, and then switch sides.” Repeat a few times to open up the hips and relieve lower back pain, she said.
For upper back pain, try a shoulder-opening stretch: Grip your opposite elbows with both hands to make a picture-frame shape, Stanley said. Then move your “picture frame” above your head, open your chest and hold for a few breaths, she said.
Make core-strengthening exercises a habit.
A 2019 meta-analysis found that regular exercise was the most effective way to prevent recurring back pain. “Motion is the lotion,” Dr. Wei said. “You’ve got to move.”
Instead of treating your pain after the fact, consider a preventive approach, Dr. Wei said. Building movement and flexibility into your day, he added, is more effective for the long-term health of your back.
All of the experts advised focusing on your core — which includes back muscles, hip flexors, glutes, quads and hamstrings. To strengthen them, Dr. Echebiri recommended yoga, the elliptical machine, walking and swimming. Dr. Prideaux suggested tai chi and Pilates.
Rethink your binge-watching position.
I confessed to Dr. Echebiri that I watch shows in bed while balancing a laptop on my chest, and he told me that this was a “position to avoid.”
Instead, he suggested sitting upright in bed, putting a pillow vertically behind my back, and placing the laptop on a breakfast tray or a stand. “I know it’s not as relaxing as reclining and watching TV,” he said, “but it’s definitely going to be better for your back and neck.”
Similarly, I admitted to Dr. Wei that I often wear a heating pad like a cape. Don’t normalize chronic back pain, he told me. If your pain lasts for more than three months, he said, see a doctor or a physical therapist.
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