Promoting Back Health While Working from Home

​Today we speak to Mr. Jeff Cobble, physical therapist at the Dayani Center, about prevention of neck and back injuries while working from home.

Begin Transcript

SHAINA FARFEL:  Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I am Shaina Farfel with Occupational Health.  Today, we are speaking with Jeff Cobble, physical therapist, at the Vanderbilt Dayani Center.  Jeff, thanks so much for being with us today.  

JEFF COBBLE:  Thank you for having me.  

SHAINA FARFEL:  A few months ago, we spoke with Occupational Health's in-house ergonomist, Wilma Traughber, about setting up a home office.  Since the trend from working from home continues today and likely will continue into the future given the pandemic, I wanted to get a physical therapist's perspective on best methods to avoid back and neck injuries related to these types of work environments.  First off, are you seeing an increase in neck or back injuries in people who have transitioned from an office to working from home during this time?   

JEFF COBBLE:  I do not have any hard figures, but just anecdotally speaking I have noticed more people are coming in and they have been working from home for the past year, so they have not really been as active because of the pandemic and so from an anecdotally standpoint, yes, I think we are seeing a few more neck and back problems from people who have been at home for the past year.   

SHAINA FARFEL:  I am sure we will be gathering probably more data as the months and years go on with all of this too.  What are you seeing as the most common causes of these types of injuries, kind of in the home office setting?  

JEFF COBBLE:  Generally speaking, posture tends to be the big one that we look at.  A lot of times your home may not be setup like your office workstation, so you might have your back twisted in a different position or you might be looking one way and trying to work the other way.  Another one for people who spend a lot of time on the phone, if they are holding their phone between their ear and their shoulder, and trying to type, and they are on the phone all day, that can cause problems in the neck definitely.  The posture tends to be the biggest thing that we look at.  

SHAINA FARFEL:  Given that, what are some of the most important tips and/or strategies that you may suggest to prevent some of these common neck or back injuries that occur at home?    

JEFF COBBLE:  For the phone, if you are on the phone all day, if you have access to a headset or get something where you can be not having to hold the headpiece of the phone between your ear and your shoulder that way you can sit up straighter, and you would be able to type or do whatever you need to do on your computer without having to handle the headset for the phone.  From a posture standpoint, looking at your workstation, if you are working on your couch or you are at a makeshift dining room table or something like that, try to setup a designated workspace that you can make specifically for work.  If you have access to an ergonomics expert, you can look at that too, but you generally want to be able to sit up straight, have your elbows at about a 90-degree angle, so that monitor is not too high or too low, but at eye level.  So, a lot of just basic workstation tips like that can be very helpful as far as that goes.  

SHAINA FARFEL:  It sounds like you do not necessarily need anything fancy, but just thinking through some of these basic things.

JEFF COBBLE:  Right and for your height, weight, and things like that, if you chair is too low or too high or things like that.   

SHAINA FARFEL:  As I mentioned Wilma Traughber is one of our ergonomists that we have here at Occupational Health, and she is available to employees as a resource as well.  What would you consider to be good standing and sitting posture, and I guess one of the things that I always want to know and questions we get from people is, is standing really better for you than sitting?  If you have an opportunity to use a standing desk, is that preferable for preventing injuries?

JEFF COBBLE:  It depends on the purpose.  From a general health standpoint, Americans tend to spend too much time sitting during the day anyway, so even if you are not working at your desk, if you can get up and move around a little bit and takes some breaks throughout the day so you are not sitting for several hours in a row, that can be helpful.  From a posture standpoint, the biggest thing with computers is, we kind of talk about computer head where your head just kind of creeps forward, your shoulders round forward, you are just kind of slumped over your keyboard, so really engaging the muscles in your upper back and kind of pulling the shoulder blades back, sit up nice and tall almost like if you have a string pulling up out of the top of your head, so sitting up nice and tall.  The same applies for standing posture.  You try not to be slouched or slumped or skewed to one side or the other but try to keep the back straight and aligned and those can all help have better posture and you will probably feel a little bit better and breathe easier too.  

SHAINA FARFEL:  If someone does notice or is concerned that they may be developing an injury or starting to notice some pain, especially while working, what are some resources available to them?  What would you recommend at that point, and I will say, if it is someone who is an employee and is concerned about a work-related injury, they can always start by coming to Occupational Health, but how might they access Dayani, if that is a good resource, just any recommendations?

JEFF COBBLE:  We have physical therapy here.  We also have some group fitness classes that are meeting via Zoom and those are all virtual.  Exercise physiologists leads those classes, but we have 23 classes, I believe, throughout the course of the week.  You just need to contact the Dayani Center to ask about them.  If you are interested in just doing some of the movement classes, we have everything from cardio to yoga to a seated stretch, some destress, some balance, gentle movement, so a variety of intensities and skill levels depending on what a person is looking for.  For physical therapy, you need referrals from a doctor.  The Orthopedic Physical Therapy Clinic would handle probably more of the new injuries, like you have never had a back injury before and this was something you just did last week or something versus if you have had some nagging back issues for several years, but it has just kind of gotten to the point working at home then you might end up at the Dayani Center, but your physicians can set you up with referrals to physical therapy.

SHAINA FARFEL:  It sounds like you have got a great number of offerings.  That is wonderful.  Well, Jeff, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today and I know Vanderbilt employees will find this incredibly helpful, especially as we are all continuing on this ongoing pandemic journey and how it has shifted how we are working, so we really appreciate you taking the time out today.

JEFF COBBLE:  Thank you for having me.  It is my pleasure.  

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