• Health

How to rescue your aching back

I’ve been a full-time freelancer for several years now, and a fair percentage of my work involves staring at a computer screen (usually trying to think of clever things to write). It’s nice work if you can get it, as the Gerschwins said – but it has one big unintended consequence.

Oh, my poor poor aching back!

Hours and hours of hunching over a laptop are starting take their toll, I’m afraid. Sometimes it starts with a dull ache in my neck when I’ve been craning my head down too long. Sometimes it’s a sharp, stabbing pain in my shoulder blade. Sometimes the back of my rib cage feels like it’s being slowly crushed in a vise. Sing, O muse, of Tiger Balm and hot baths with Epsom salts! Sing of handfuls of Advil and shameful begging for massages from loved ones!

I’m sure I’m not the only one – back problems are a common complaint for freelancers, especially those who work from home, where the temptation to sit on a sofa and curl around one’s laptop is strong. Even a more traditional office set-up – desk, chair, monitor – is rarely healthy for your beleaguered spine. So what’s a freelancer to do?

Much as I did when my eyes were starting to suffer from the freelance habit, I’ve been investigating ways to fend off back pain. This 5-part list is by no means comprehensive – but it’s what’s worked best so far!

Stretch it Out

To reduce back issues, experts recommend taking brief breaks and stretching every half-hour or so (avoiding static posture, the fancy term for turning into a calcified freelance statue from sitting motionless for long periods). Here’s a nice little slideshow of gentle stretches from the Mayo Clinic, not only for backs but for your put-upon wrists and neck.

In a broader sense, I (like so many others), have found that yoga substantially reduces back pain; I definitely notice a big difference when I’m going to class regularly. Pilates (which, if you’ve never done it, is a humbling experience) can also help soothe your aching spine by building core muscles and lengthening overstressed muscles. As a fun bonus, when done consistently, it also has the potential to give you abs like an Olympian swimmer.

Work it Out

A lot of our back problems stem from the fact that we’re sitting all day – instead of, yknow, hunting mastodons or fleeing cave tigers or doing whatever our bodies were originally designed to do (eat berries, breed, die young of the plague?). After a long day of work, you may be inclined to lie on a hard floor and let your spine settle while feebly grasping at the remote. If you can rouse yourself to physical activity, however, you’ll reap the benefits. Studies show that exercise can counteract these harmful office-related spinal side effects; this is true not only of the aforementioned activities yoga and pilates, but also of strength training and many cardio sports.

Again, I’ve found this to be true anecdotally; the more I get out and run (and friends, I hate to run) and do other regular physical activity, the less spastic my back is.

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Sit Up Straight

HAHAHA if this was EASY advice to follow, none of us would have any issues, would we?

Listen, we all slump sometimes – and you can suffer almost as much damage from forcing yourself to consistently sit ramrod-straight, like a martinet, as you can from hunching. If you have a habit of habitually slumping, however, try to see if you can check in with yourself every few minutes and self-correct. A really easy tip? Stick a Post-It within your line of sight that says “Are You Slumping?” If you’re like me, prepare to be vaguely horrified at how often the reminder is useful.

If you feel like you’ve been hunching for so long that you don’t even know what good posture is anymore – and yes, I’ve been there too – I’d recommend Alexander Technique, which really helped me in the past. It’s based around releasing tension and using gravity to change your postural habits, and a lot of its basic lessons are free online.

Make it Ergonomical

If your computer is consistently placed at an angle that forces you to crane your neck, all the yoga in the world won’t help you. Eventually, your neck will hurt.

This resource has a good overview of ergonomically-friendly angles for your screens and workspace; check it out and make sure that your work environment isn’t sabotaging your spine. I’d love to say I religiously follow those guidelines myself, but I find desks a bit irritating (and thus have mooted some of their carefully-diagrammed angles). I HAVE, however, really enjoyed occasionally switching out my chair/couch/coffee shop perch for a bouncy exercise ball at home – my back feels better afterwards, and it’s fun in the deeply immature manner that’s my, uh, jam.

If you’re interested in more complex options, the free market is your friend. All sorts of ergonomic office chairs, keyboards, and desks are easily findable online, including standing desks – again, I’m not inclined to explore those myself, but some friends who have tried them LOVE them.

Shake It Off

A fair percentage of back pain is exacerbated by stress; I know it’s true for me, and I’m sure it’s true for many of you.

Make sure that you’re giving yourself outlets to release tension. Your back may be killing you because your body is screaming for stress relief. If you’re consistently experiencing chronic back pain, think about ways to blow off steam, to step away from your work, and have a bit of fun. Those muscles may be so tense because you are actually trying to carry the weight of the world on your poor shoulders. What can you do to relax?

Heck, have you thought about going and getting a back massage? Or perhaps some acupuncture? (Pssst. Acupuncture and yoga are free at Freelancers Medical! Check out your health insurance coverage options here.)

What about you, fellow freelancers? How do you save your aching backs?

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.