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How to Keep WFH From Messing Up Your Back

As told to Cindy Kuzma.

These tips from a back doctor can bring you relief.

Naimish Baxi, M.D., 37, a physiatrist specializing in spine and sports care, has seen an uptick in back pain thanks to pandemic home-office hunching, excess couch time, and overzealous home workouts. Even this assistant professor at Weil Cornell Medical College and physiatrist at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, has to remind himself to sit right and to lift right. Here’s what he does to keep his back in line:

Get in the right position to be pain free

At my desk, I keep the top of my monitor at eye level and my keyboard on a tray under it, so my elbows are flexed at about 100 to 110 degrees. If you’re on a laptop, get a separate keyboard and mouse so you can position the screen better. This prevents hunching, which can cause rounding of the shoulders and a bent-forward neck—and pain, knots, and spasms in the neck and upper back. I’m seeing it multiple times a week right now.

Prevent neck knots

When I’m sitting in traffic or standing around, I do chin tucks and resisted neck rotations. That’s where you press your hand against one side of your jaw and try to rotate your neck against that resistance. This activates the muscles that surround and support the cervical spine. The stronger these muscles are, the easier time you’ll have holding your head, neck, and back in the right position, which helps prevent neck pain.

Do core consistently

I use an app to do different ten-minute core workouts four times a week. A favorite: bear planks, planks, over-unders, bicycles, and hip thrusts; 45 seconds on, 15 seconds off; two rounds. Working your abs, obliques, and hip flexors is like building stronger scaffolding around your spine, protecting your precious discs.

Don’t rush into surgery

I have some herniated discs—up to 2 percent of adults are diagnosed with them each year. But I’ve never considered surgery, because I’ve been able to recover with treatment. There are only a few reasons to go under the knife. It’s urgent if you have compromised bladder or bowel function because the nerves in your lumbar spine are compressed. Or if you’re having neurologic weakness, like foot drop, where you can’t lift your foot or ankle. A third reason is severe, debilitating pain that doesn’t respond to physical therapy, injections, or other treatments.

Keep the cap on

I never take anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or naproxen for back pain. Inflammation is our body’s way of healing, so suppressing it doesn’t let things repair organically. When I have a flare-up in my lower back, I hand my wife a deep-massage-therapy device (like a Theragun) and ask her to dig into my glutes, hamstrings, quads, and the muscles on either side of my spinal column.

Lift in a smart way

I do CrossFit. While it gets blamed for a lot of injuries, the problem isn’t CrossFit; it’s not doing the lifts right. The most common error is rounding your back during moves like deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and wall balls. Another is lifting too heavy at first—I made that mistake. For now, I’ve shifted from heavy, one-rep maxes to lifting at the 50-to-60-percent-max range. The minute I can’t maintain good form, I change something, whether that’s reducing the load or modifying the movement.




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