Medical Contributor: Laurent Delavaux, M.D.contributes to topics such as Orthopedics, Rehabilitation, Physical Medicine.

Working from home may be the new ‘normal’ for some individuals given the COVID-19 pandemic—but did you know that the layout of your home office (or even the way you position and stare at your laptop) may affect your overall neck and shoulder health? 

Laurent Delavaux, M.D., an interventional pain physician at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, says that roughly 10-25% of individuals will have new neck pain each year while another 7-34% of people will experience new shoulder pain. “These ailments are becoming increasingly more common given that many of us use computers or phones more frequently throughout the day,” shares the expert. 

Sign Up for Middletown Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Dr. Delavaux explains three common work-related scenarios that can lead to neck and/or shoulder pain and provides helpful solutions:

Problem: I have bad posture while working on a laptop, computer or phone. According to Dr. Delavaux, bad posture is when an individual rounds his or her upper back and head forward while also rounding the shoulders forward. “This puts a lot of stress on your neck and certain shoulder muscles,” he says. 

Solution: Fix your posture. Dr. Delavaux advises that individuals practice good posture. “This is when the shoulders are relaxed but pulled back, with the chest open and head level with ears at the level of the shoulders,” he says. Techniques to improve your posture include:

  • Sitting with proper lumbar (lower back) support
  • Keeping your upper back against the backrest of your chair
  • Making sure your seat height is such that your wrist is level with your keyboard while typing at a computer (this way your elbows are at 90 degrees)
  • Keeping your computer screen leveled or at 30 degrees down from your line of sight

Problem: I look down too frequently while typing all dayThe average head, Dr. Delavaux notes, weighs more than 20-30 pounds, so the more forward flexed the head is, the more strain you are putting on your neck, spine and shoulders. “A 45-degree slouch of the head and shoulders while looking down is 4 or 5 times more forceful to the body than normal,” he explains. “This means that the muscles are constantly working harder than they should to maintain body shape when posture is off and this can lead to muscle injury, strain, spasms, development of trigger points or ‘muscle knots.’”

Solution: Be more aware of how often you look down. “Pay attention to your body position and overall line of sight,” recommends Dr. Delavaux, “and check yourself to prevent that slouch or lean.” Other tips include:

  • Keeping your eyes level with the top of your computer monitor (and your monitor should be one arms-length away)
  • Placing your laptop and/or keyboard on a raised surface to accomplish that “desktop” set-up to refrain from constantly looking down

Problem: I notice that I’m not really moving throughout the day because I’m too consumed in my work. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in answering emails, writing documents and handling other business online,” says Dr. Delavaux. “Hours can go by and you may realize, ‘Wow, I haven’t moved all day!’” The expert notes, though, that prolonged fixed positioning can lead to injury.

Solution: Incorporate neck and shoulder movement throughout the day. Dr. Delavaux says that the first step is maintaining flexibility and a range of motion with help of a few stretches. For the neck, Dr. Delavaux says that you should take a few seconds to look up, look down, turn your head to each side and then side bend (ear to shoulder). Hold each position for 15-20 seconds. “If you feel a gentle stretch, that’s okay,” comforts Dr. Delavaux. 

As for stretches of the shoulder, put your arms up as high as you can and then see if you can reach the opposite shoulder blade with your hand. “If you feel a gentle stretch, stop and hold for 15-20 seconds,” he says.

“If there is any pain doing these stretches, then it is best to not continue until you have reviewed your concerns with your doctor,” he cautions.

Signs of neck and shoulder pain

Dr. Delavaux says that individuals should pay attention to the following signs of neck pain:

  • Pain that’s often worsened by holding your head in one position for a prolonged period
  • Muscle tightness and/or spasms
  • Decreased ability to move your head

Additionally, he notes that you should be aware of the following signs of shoulder pain:

  • Inability to use the shoulder or move your arm away from your body
  • Intense (even excruciating) pain
  • Sudden swelling

“If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should call your doctor immediately and see if they offer in-person or virtual visits,” advises Dr. Delavaux. “Don’t wait too long, as this may worsen the underlying problem of the pain.”

Causes of neck and shoulder pain

Dr. Delavaux explains that neck and shoulder pain can be caused by a variety of factors, including but not limited to:

  • Poor posture, muscle imbalances, weakness and misalignments
  • Muscle strains
  • Rotator cuff strains
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Herniated disc
  • Injuries
  • Poor sleeping positions

“So, it’s important to remember that even the slightest of changes in your posture, eye level and mobility can make the biggest of impacts,” recaps Dr. Delavaux. “But as always, the best way to move forward is with an open and honest dialogue and evaluation with your health care team to create your personalized care plan.” 

Next steps and resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.