Work-From-Home and It’s Impact on Musculoskeletal Health

  • 25 Jan 2022
  • 4 mins

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in common musculoskeletal pain for a variety of reasons beyond just our desk setups, Dr. Gurpal Singh, Orthopedic Surgeon explains.

Lifestyle Changes While Working From Home

Working from home was forced upon a large population when the COVID-19 pandemic started. As a result, many were unprepared and had to improvise to turn their homes into offices.

“I know many invested in home equipment so that the working from the home environment can be more conducive and ergonomic. We look for adjustable seats with height support, back support, and using a desktop or laptop with an adjustable screen,” the orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gurpal Singh said.

In addition, he said that the distance between the eye and the monitor, and keyboard distance from the edge of the table are crucial considerations.

Beyond ergonomics, Dr. Singh said that the lifestyle patterns while working from home have changed rapidly.

In a study on changing lifestyle patterns1 during the pandemic, increased family interaction was found to top the change, along with increased food consumption and delayed time to wake up.

“In the pre-COVID days, we often relished about heading home early to have dinner with the family. Perhaps due to unclear boundaries between work and home activities during the pandemic, an increased amount of food consumed has been noted. The study also showed other negative impacts such as irregular eating, poor quality of nutrition and that sleep patterns have declined,” he explained. 

“Weight gain and obesity rates have gone up and it is a serious concern because weight and musculoskeletal health are directly linked. When we have an increase increased fat mass, and fat to muscle ratio, we have significant problems in the joints and muscles.”

Regarding mental health, the study also pointed out psychosocial issues due to non- socialization and no boundaries between work and family. On a positive note, exercise seems to have increased.

Repetitive Motion Injury

“We’re also seeing a lot of overuse and repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome,” Dr. Singh said. For example, poor posture of your hands on the keyboard, long duration, and repeated movements could result in carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition affecting the sensation in your thumb and first three fingers, causing tingling, weakness, and numbness in your hands.

Risk of Vitamin D Deficiency

Working from home means spending more time indoors, which could predispose you to Vitamin D deficiency. Given that we live in sunny Singapore, it should not be the case.

“It’s completely the opposite. Most of the time, we have air conditioning and now with more time being spent indoors, little or no commute to work, we are not getting enough sunlight,” Dr. Singh explained.

“Even if we do get sunlight, our common dressing habits are such that we are clothed extensively. Hence, the Vitamin D deficiency rates in our population are very high.”

Vitamin D helps to maintain bone health and improves your body’s absorption of calcium. 

Dr. Singh advised checking Vitamin D levels regularly. If deficient, it can be corrected by taking Vitamin D supplements at the right dosage. “Having too much Vitamin D in the body is also not advisable.”

Otherwise, spend more time outdoors.

Sports Injuries

While it is common that work from home reduces physical movement and activity, the new work arrangement has created an uptake of sports.

“A lot of people have tried to take up some form of sports like cycling and running. Some sports injuries can be very severe and hence, we need to be mindful of the sports that we do and should do it safely,” Dr. Singh advised.

“Luckily, most of the sports injuries can be treated without surgery.”

Common sports injuries include anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear and meniscus injury. The ACL is a ligament that stabilizes the knee by connecting your thigh bone (femur) to your shinbone (tibia). A meniscus acts as a shock absorber between the thigh bone and shinbone.

“It is usually caused by a twisting force on the knee that causes the ligament or the meniscus to tear. This typically happens in basketball, football, and running activities.  You need to be aware of how you turn your upper body while your leg is still fixed on the ground as it is the pivoting or twisting force that causes ACL and meniscus injuries,” Dr. Singh explained.

Another injury caused by sports is a bulging or slipped disc where the disc is pressing on the nerves and causing pain. It could happen as a result of lifting heavy weights.

Grin and Bear the Pain

For bones and joint pain, we are often guilty of brushing it aside. After all, it is not life-threatening and can be dealt with later. Why do people delay treatment? Primarily due to lack of knowledge about risks and control and acceptance that poor bone health is a common age-related condition2.

Knee osteoarthritis (OA), for example, is a very common chronic condition that can cause significant disability among adults. If left untreated for a long time, it leads to pain, joint stiffness and hampers mobility.

“Nobody should be in a wheelchair or lose their independence because of knee pain nowadays. When the problem is picked up early, it is easier to treat – smaller operations and perhaps no surgery,” he advised.

“We normally start with structured physiotherapy, home-based exercises, and activity modification. If that doesn’t work, we try injections,” he explained the treatment plan.

“Surgery is only the last resort. However, the best is still prevention.”

“Generally, the results from these treatments are good but you should see your doctor early and get your joint pain treated early. Working from home without any musculoskeletal pain yields higher satisfaction and productivity,” Dr. Singh advised.

[1] Ekpanyaskul, C., & Padungtod, C. (2021). Occupational Health Problems and Lifestyle Changes Among Novice Working-From-Home Workers Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic. Safety and health at work, 12(3), 384–389.

[2] Prasanna, S. S., Korner-Bitensky, N., & Ahmed, S. (2013). Why do people delay accessing health care for knee osteoarthritis? Exploring beliefs of health professionals and lay people. Physiotherapy Canada. Physiotherapie Canada, 65(1), 56–63.

Contributed by

Dr. Gurpal Singh
Orthopedic Surgeon
Centre for Orthopaedics and Hip and Knee Surgery
Farrer Park Hospital