As an infection-control strategy, working from home has played an important part in lowering transmission of the coronavirus, but the work setup can spur health issues of its own — and not just the “Quarantine 15” weight-gain phenomenon, according to Jahnna Levy, DO, an interventional pain and sports medicine physician with Garden State Pain & Orthopedics.
Many individuals are finding the experience a literal pain in the neck as they tap on laptops perched on surfaces never intended to serve as desks, the physician explains.
“We’ve seen an increase in people reporting neck and lower-back pain,” Dr. Levy said of those seeking care at Garden State Pain & Orthopedics, which has locations in Edison, Clifton, Hazlet and Jersey City. Using improvised workstations that place an emphasis on expedience over ergonomics often is to blame, she said. “People are sitting on the couch and leaning forward to work on a laptop on their coffee table, or they may have their laptop on the kitchen counter and are sitting on a stool that offers no lumbar support,” she noted.
In addition, “People’s activity levels have shifted. Some are taking advantage of the time they are saving on commuting to exercise more, which in general is terrific, but we’re seeing more patellar tendinitis, sciatica and similar complaints from people who pushed too hard too soon with running and other activities,” the interventional pain and sports medicine specialist added. “Conversely, other people have become more sedentary because they no longer have to walk to the bus stop, or from the train station to their office. This can contribute to longer-term problems with cardiovascular health and other issues.”
Avoiding Pain and Injuries: A Matter of Degree
There are several simple steps that individuals can take to create a pain-free work environment and experience, said Dr. Levy, board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation and fellowship-trained in interventional pain management and sports medicine.
“Start with the ‘90-degree rule.’ Keep your elbows and knees at a 90-degree angle when working at your computer. This will keep your feet flat on the floor and your elbows at your sides, rather than overextended,” the specialist said. “Keep your computer screen at eye level, so that you’re not straining your neck by looking up or down. Place a box underneath the laptop or monitor, if necessary. Keep your wrists neutral and above the keyboard when typing, and use earbuds, a speaker phone or your computer’s audio for calls so that you’re not holding your phone to your ear or cradling it between your shoulder and head.”
It’s also beneficial to periodically get away from the computer screen, Dr. Levy advised. “We are meant to be bodies in motion. Throughout the course of the day, take breaks to stretch, walk around the block or even do a few jumping jacks if your fitness level allows,” she said.
If individuals experience stiffness, pain or other problems after a long day at the (home) office, the pain specialist advised them to “assess your workstation and make any modifications needed to deal with issues such as lack of lumbar support, poor posture, neck strain or typing at an uncomfortable angle. After that, standard approaches such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory agents, rest and gentle stretching often will provide relief. If, however, the pain or other symptoms persist more than a few days, it is worthwhile to see a physician. Musculoskeletal problems are far easier to treat when we deal with them sooner rather than later,” Dr. Levy noted.
When people come to her because of a problem such as lower back pain or chronic neck stiffness, Dr. Levy explained that her first step is to “simply listen. In the great majority of cases, we can establish — or at least go far toward identifying — the diagnosis with a thorough history and a physical examination,” she said. “When needed, we can make use of a range of diagnostic modalities, such as imaging studies and electromyography (EMG), which enables us to assess the health of muscles and the nerves that control them.”
Once the diagnosis is established, Dr. Levy considers the patient’s goals in formulating an individualized treatment plan. “For people who have developed pain while working from home over these past few months, the goal often is simply to be able to do their job without experiencing an aching back, numbness in their wrists and fingers, or stiffness or discomfort in their neck. In other cases, people who have become more active this year may want to get back to running after experiencing a knee or hip problem that has sidelined them. Whatever the case, my colleagues at Garden State Pain & Orthopedics and I consider the whole patient and consider the full range of options when developing a treatment strategy that is best suited to that particular person’s lifestyle and goals. That is one of the advantages of receiving care from a multi-disciplinary practice that draws on the expertise and perspectives of interventional pain specialists, orthopedists, sports medicine physicians and other clinicians,” she said. Dr. Levy’s comprehensive assessments and care plans also consider a patient’s diet, sleep habits, emotional well-being and other factors critical to overall health and quality of life, the pain specialist said.
“The truth is, you can’t perform well — personally, professionally, athletically or in any aspect of your life — if you’re in pain. There are effective solutions available, and if self-care doesn’t provide adequate relief after a few days, I really urge people to consult a physician rather than trying to ‘just live with it’ and potentially waiting until their condition may be more difficult to treat and may require more-involved interventions,” she noted.
Dr. Levy attended medical school at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City. Upon graduation, she completed her internship at North Shore-LIJ Plainview Hospital and her residency in physiatry at the prestigious Rusk Institute at New York University Hospital in New York City. During her residency, Dr. Levy received extensive training at the Hospital for Joint Disease and was elected Chief Resident at both the Manhattan Veterans Affairs Hospital and Bellevue Hospital.
During her fellowship, Dr. Levy was trained to perform a variety of nonsurgical orthopedic procedures and fluoroscopically-guided injections for neck, back and joint pain. She is also trained in spinal cord stimulator placement, EMGs, diagnostic musculoskeletal ultrasound and percutaneous tenotomy for tendon injuries. Additionally, she received training in medical acupuncture and migraine management.
Dr. Levy is an active member of the North American Neuromodulation Society, American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians and American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
Dr. Levy and her Garden State Pain & Orthopedics colleagues see patients at the practice’s offices in Clifton, (973) 291-2057; Edison, (732) 256-2927; Hazlet, (732) 256-8088; and Jersey City, (973) 291-2466. For more information, or to schedule an appointment, call the Garden State Pain & Orthopedics office closest to you or visit gardenstatepain.com.