When work is a pain: Is your desk harming your health?
Eight months had passed before Chintan Joshi, 27, saw a doctor for a niggling backache. The Mumbai-based IT security consultant had quickly climbed the ranks of a fast-growing information security start-up. This meant hours of looking at code on a computer screen, with little room for error, working late nights, sometimes taking work home too.
Joshi would use sprays and ointments for temporary relief; but the pain, shooting up from the tailbone, would keep returning with a vengeance. “Soon, I couldn’t find a comfortable way to watch TV or use a laptop at home. I couldn’t sleep unless I lay on my stomach,” he says. “I finally visited a doctor, and realised that the problem was self-inflicted it had to do with my posture at work.”
Desk-bound jobs are causing young and otherwise healthy people like Joshi to end up at physiotherapy clinics with back, neck, knee, elbow, wrist or shoulder pain. About a decade ago, these were symptoms detected largely among people in their 40s. Technology addiction and a mostly sedentary lifestyle, has made the condition now common with young people too.
“I see about 5-7 cases of young people with neck and back pain every day; a decade ago, I’d see one such case in a month. This is largely linked to inadequate physical activity,” says Dr Yash Gulati, senior consultant, department of orthopaedics at New Delhi’s Indraprastha Apollo Hospital.
Being seated for hours on end and slouching on a couch while watching TV means the spine gets little rest.
Joshi, took note of his posture at work after a doctor’s visit and found that he was often sliding low into his chair. He approached his company for help and they added an ergonomic back pillow to his seat. He began to follow his physiotherapist’s instructions carefully too, making sure his feet always touched the ground, adjusting his screen height, and taking frequent breaks.
Two years on, the pain has subsided. But many like him seek treatment weeks after the first signs of pain and immobility, which makes it harder to treat.
Delhi-based lawyer Amita Sehgal, 38, was bound to her desk for 7-8 hours a day, six days a week. She neglected the pain in her neck that appeared on and off for about a couple of months. Six months ago, Sehgal had a baby, and her physical movement reduced further. “The pain aggravated and I had to see a doctor. I was diagnosed with a cervical problem, related to a bad sitting posture. The doctor prescribed chair exercises, which helped.”
Such injuries are categorised as repetitive stress injuries.
“We see many young people who complain of joint pain though they have no injury,” says Dr AM Rajani, consultant knee and shoulder surgeon at Mumbai’s Breach Candy, Saifee and Bhatia hospitals. “A lot of neck pain is related to constantly looking down at a smartphone or a tablet. The lack of physical activity and sunlight are factors too, along with the increasingly common deficiency of Vitamin D.”
Small adjustments at your workplace can make a huge difference. “Your chair must have comfortable armrests. It should be tilted back 10 degrees to 15 degrees. Your knees should be at the level of your hips when you sit. Tall people need deeper chairs,” recommends Dr Gulati.
A five-minute break every hour helps too. “Get up and walk for a few minutes, stretching your arms, neck, back and legs,” says Dr Rajesh Malhotra, head of orthopaedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
While a growing number of people aged 20 to 35 are at risk, symptoms are also appearing in children as young as 7. “Children between 7 and 14 have been complaining about neck pain. These are problems brought on by sitting at a computer or looking down at a tablet for too long, compounded by improper posture and lack of exercise,” says Dr Rujuta Mehta, consultant paediatric orthopaedic at Mumbai’s Nanavati hospital.
Another side-effect of too much technology: thumb pain, from constantly scrolling and typing on smartphones, says Dr Vijaya Baskar, lead of rehabilitation at Nightingales, a home healthcare company.
One of Dr Baskar’s patients, finance professional Sunny Rangparia, 27, developed hand pain that extended over time to his wrists, shoulders and lower back. “My job requires me to be at my desk constantly, and a workday can stretch beyond 12 hours,” says Rangparia. “After two months of using pain balm, I visited a doctor, but because of work, I couldn’t keep up with the physiotherapy routine.”
He eventually used the services of home-health specialist Nightingales, for a treatment that involved ultrasound therapy, hand and wrist exercises, and transcutaneous electrical nerve simulation. “I feel much better now,” Rangparia says. “And I’ve been teaching my colleagues the exercises as a preventive measure.”
Workplace-related pain can be green flag (brought on by movement and treated with light home exercises) or red flag (persistent pain, sometimes accompanied with a fever, that needs serious attention). If the pain lasts longer than two or three weeks, it’s best to consult a doctor.
Don’t pop painkillers indiscriminately. They might not be the solution at all.
“It’s better to not take medicine, and be regular with physiotherapy instead,” says Dr Gulati.
Simple ways to stay comfortable at the workplace
Sit right. Your screen should be at eye level, an arm’s length away. Your lower back should rest against the chair, your feet should touch the floor.
Work your neck. Every half hour, give your neck muscles a loosening up by slowly moving your head up and down and from side to side.
Take a break. Leave your seat at least once an hour to walk around the floor. It will let your spine extend too.
Stretch it out. Extend your arms, legs and back every 15 to 20 minutes, and rotate your shoulders, ankles and wrists to give them a break.