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Ouch, My Neck and Back Hurts

  • 06 Jan 2022
  • 4 mins

If you have been experiencing more pain in your neck or back, you are not alone. We asked Dr. Mohd Mashfiqul Arafin Siddiqui, Senior Orthopedic and Spine Surgeon, how you can prevent and better manage the conditions.  


A common symptom

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the work patterns since 2020. Many rapidly adjusted to working from home as offices closed and, more importantly, to stop the spread. While working from home is still work, there’s a chance to lifestyle habits, less attention to ergonomics and posture. After all, it is the same space where you return from work and relax and lounge. Hence, it is no surprise that Dr. Mash sees more low back and neck pain cases. 

“Even before the pandemic, low back pain is a very common symptom. About 31% of the general population suffers from lower back pain and it is ranked the fourth leading cause of disability,” he said. In this study published by Lancet in 20151, more than half a billion people worldwide have low back pain for more than three months, and about a third of a billion had neck pain of more than three months duration. Once the back pain lasts for more than three months, it is considered a chronic condition that merits medical attention.

“The prevalence and intensity of lower back pain during the COVID-19 period were also found to be higher in another study. Whether the person is in quarantine and working from home, they share similar effects resulting in their low back pain. The study also found that the affected people are between 35 to 49 years old, have a BMI of more than 30 and spend long periods sitting down working on their computers,” Dr. Mash explained.


Mind the Pandemic Posture

The pandemic posture is a real thing. Its contributing factors are wide-ranging – from working in the kitchen to taking calls via zoom on an ironing board to working on the couch. All these impact your posture as well.

The usual suspects are poor ergonomics while working from home, where bad habits such as slouching at your desk or couch lead to increased neck and lower back pain. All of that comes together to make a worse milieu for back and neck issues.

It is essential to keep your back straight and prevent your shoulders from rolling forward. A good posture means that the main parts of a person’s body are correctly aligned and supported by the right amount of muscle tension.

According to Dr. Mash, it is advisable to use chairs with both neck and back support. He further advised you to keep your feet firmly to the ground and elbows resting on the table. If facing the monitor, your eyes should be at the top or near the top of the monitor to keep a proper posture.

Knowingly or not, many users are often looking down at a laptop screen or may not have their desktop computer positioned at the correct height. Over time, these habits can cause damage to one’s posture, causing neck and back pain.


Lifting and Carrying Safely

A leading cause of back injury is lifting or handling objects incorrectly. Do not attempt to lift by bending forward. Instead, you should bend your hips and knees to squat down to your load, keep it close to your body, and straighten your legs to lift while keeping the back straight. Lifting heavy objects above the shoulder level can injure the neck and back.


Sleeping Positions

You may not give much thought to your body position while you sleep; however, your sleeping posture plays a vital role in neck and back pain. If you do not position yourself in a way that keeps your spine aligned and relaxed, you may be putting excess weight or strain on your neck and back.

Research shows that sleeping problems may be at the root of up to 5% of chronic neck and back pain2. Many of these factors are controllable such as getting the right mattress.

“Mattress should be firm, not too hard, and not too soft. The best way to sleep is actually on your back,” he added.
 

Avoid the Text Neck

“Text neck” refers to the posture formed by leaning forward for prolonged periods when viewing your mobile phone or while reading and texting.

“When you are looking down at your cell phone, the amount of force that goes through your neck can be increased by three times and that causes neck pain,” cautioned Dr. Mash.

He suggested using the earpiece if the phone usage is going to be long.

“If you have long messages to type, use web versions of messaging. Instead of looking down and typing, you can sit straight and write your messages on your computer. You can also consider text to speech technology to write and send messages,” Dr. Mash added.


Exercise

“Don’t forget to take frequent breaks when using mobile devices and exercise for cardiovascular fitness,” Dr. Mash emphasized.

“Remember that those with BMI more than 30 carries a higher risk of back pain, exercise to avoid being overweight and for back strengthening,” he advised.

“One can consider swimming or even walking in the pool.   Water has more resistance than air. Hence simple walking against the resistance is good for your back,” suggested Dr. Mash.

“You can always look up the internet for effective exercises that you can do at home and this will help you in both your neck as well as your lower back.”
 

Stop Smoking

Nicotine limits blood flow to your disks that protect your vertebrae. This causes an increased rate of degeneration, causing loss to your back’s cushion, which results in pain.

“We have also found that there is a higher risk of nerve pain in the legs for smokers. Also, for those smokers who undergo surgery, there is less improvement after surgery and a higher chance of re-hospitalization after the surgery,” warned Dr. Mash.

Furthermore, smoking reduces your calcium absorption, which limits new bone growth.
 

When pain does not go away

The good news is that neck and back pain often does get better. But when should you be worried?

“You should be worried if the pain doesn’t get better if it wakes you up from your sleep, or if you develop a fever, weight loss and appetite loss. Sometimes it’s not just a simple back pain but a more pressing condition like an infection or a tumour,” he said.

He also encouraged seeking medical consultation early if the pain persists. “If presented early, can be treated with antibiotics. A late presentation could result in severe damage to bone structure requiring a major spinal surgery.”

Another sign to worry about is when the pain goes down the arm and legs, associated with numbness or tingling, weakness of the arms or legs, and abnormal walking. These signs can be due to injury of nerves in the spine. 

One may be hesitant to seek help as they are afraid of going through procedures such as surgery. However, not all neck and back pain ends in surgeries. In cases where surgery is needed, one does not have to worry as with modern techniques and equipment available today, spinal surgeries are safe and effective. With such as spine surgery are minimally invasive techniques, recovery is also faster after surgery. 
 



References
[1] Home | GSK. (n.d.). Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://www.gsk.com/media/3814/global-pain-index-2017-report.pdf.

[2] Canivet C;Ostergren PO;Choi B;Nilsson P;af Sillén U;Moghadassi M;Karasek R;Isacsson SO; (n.d.). Sleeping problems as a risk factor for subsequent musculoskeletal pain and the role of job strain: Results from a one-year follow-up of the Malmö Shoulder Neck Study Cohort. International journal of behavioral medicine. Retrieved November 24, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19005925/.

Contributed by

Dr. Mohd Mashfiqul Arafin Siddiqui [Dr. Mash]
Orthopedic Surgeon
Farrer Park Hospital