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Why cases of back pain have increased during the pandemic

A man sitting at a desk stretching out to relieve back and shoulder pains due to the office syndrome in the home office.
Dr. Fairbanks says a stretching routine can help relieve back and shoulder pains due to the office syndrome in the home office.

Back pain has been one of the country’s leading health concerns. Dr. Carson Fairbanks, an orthopedic spine surgeon on the medical staff at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth, told KERA’s Sam Baker he's seeing more aches and pains in the neck, mid-back, and lower back.


Possible reasons for increases in pandemic back pain

There are a lot of factors, but one is a great reduction in the number of people that are making it to the gym.

Also, the ergonomics of the workspace are vital to preventing a lot of the aches and pains I'm seeing: The chairs you use, how high your computer screen is. When people work from home, a lot of times we neglect that and sit on the couch or on our bed looking at our laptop to get our work done.

Tips for a better home workspace:

  • You want to have a normal high desk.
  • Invest in a good chair with lumbar support. There are some relatively cheap options out there, but you can even take a rolled-up towel or a throw pillow and just place it right behind your low back to give that lumbar support that many desk chairs have.
  • Set up your computer screen where it's eye level. You're looking straight ahead, not up or down or side to side.
  • If you sit in any one position for usually more than about two hours, your back is going to get very stiff and very sore. And so the set-to-stand desk where you just change positions every 45 minutes to an hour is a worthy investment as well.

Good posture is important

If the workspace isn’t set up correctly, then a lot of times folks are kind of hunched over. Having that nice sway in the back, some good lumbar support, and sitting up tall - not with your shoulders hunched over and leaning on your elbows the whole time - plays a huge role.

Lifestyle factors

They play a big role in your spine health:

  • Aerobic exercise or light weightlifting-type exercise is incredibly important. I encourage all my patients – even if it's just getting out and walking for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening - to get out and get moving and get some vitamin D. It’s incredibly important.
  • I've also seen patients, who had a no smoking policy at the office, find they smoke much more frequently at home. We know people who smoke in general have more back pain than people that don't smoke. So smoking cessation is incredibly important.
  • We also know that through the pandemic, people are eating a lot more, and we know that for every pound of weight that you lose, that removes five pounds of force off of your spine. So you can imagine losing just 10 pounds is 50 pounds of stress or force taken off of your spine.
  • There have been studies that have been done that show that yoga and pilates are just as good as spine-specific physical therapy at keeping your back healthy, and that goes to show you just what an essential role your core strength and your flexibility play in your spine.

So if you begin to experience some kind of back pain?

There are certainly some red flags for seeking medical care immediately:

  • If you have significant weakness in your legs or in your arms,
  • Or if you have such severe pain that you can't work, you can't sleep in.
  • But for the common backache, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and a stretching routine or a home yoga routine can be very effective.


When Working from Home, Keep Your Back in Mind

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Can COVID-19 Cause Back Pain?

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

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Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.