As many people transitioned to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, office furniture may have been replaced by makeshift desks and household chairs. However, your dining room table or spot on the couch may not have the same ergonomic design as a traditional office set-up, which may have contributed to a spike in low back pain since COVID-19 emerged.
Whether you may be already prone to low back pain, or may be experiencing it for the first time, when it strikes it may be debilitating. About 80% of people experience this discomfort at least once in their lifetime, with pain ranging from a minor nuisance to a major disability.
When severe pain lingers, you may think about seeking a prescription to help – however, clinical guidelines recommend avoiding these medications as the initial treatment for low back pain. Unfortunately, low back pain continues to be a leading driver of opioid prescriptions in the United States, according to data from OptumLabs*, and opioid usage comes with possible unnecessary risks of addiction and potential complications.
While you sometimes may not be able to avoid the aches and pains from your low back, you might try these five preventive steps and evidence-based care methods to help manage your pain and avoid opioid use:
- Focus on posture
Whether your new work spot is at your kitchen table or your couch, perfecting your posture may help. Make sure you are sitting up straight with your knees at a 90-degree angle. Your shoulders should be in a straight line over your hips and your ears should be directly over your shoulders. If you’re working at a computer, consider elevating the keyboard to help keep your hands, wrists and forearms in-line and parallel to the floor. You may also need to adjust your screen height to ensure you’re not dropping your neck down or looking up.
Pay attention to how often you are on your phone, as it may contribute to poor neck posture. This forward-drop to look at your screen may change the natural curvature of your spine, placing added strain on your neck muscles. Instead of tilting your chin down, raise the device to eye level. Avoid tucking your mobile device between your ear and shoulder, and instead consider using a speakerphone or a headset.
- Take breaks
You may notice you feel sore even if you maintain good posture throughout your workday. If you stay in one spot for too long, your muscles and joints may get stiff. Consider taking quick breaks every 30 minutes to get up and stretch or walk around a bit. This may promote better blood flow for your muscles and joints, and it may also give your eyes and mind a break.
- Stay active throughout the day
While some people with low back pain may be tempted to consider bed rest, staying active may help strengthen and stretch it out. Low impact activities to consider include walking and swimming, while research indicates that strengthening leg muscles may also prove helpful. You may also try yoga and tai chi, as they’ve been shown to ease moderate to severe low back pain.
If you don’t have time for a full workout class, it may be as simple as taking a walk at lunch or going up and down the stairs a few times.
- Eat a healthier diet
The bones, muscles, discs and other structures in your back may need proper nutrition to help support your body. Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats may help nourish them – and may reduce inflammation, which can worsen chronic pain. Eating a healthier diet may also help you maintain a healthy weight, which may reduce your risk for back pain.
- Consider care options
The American College of Physicians (ACP) recommends exercise-based therapies as the first line of treatment. If low back pain persists, ACP encourages the use of non-surgical options for initial treatment, including physical therapy, chiropractic care, acupuncture and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs. These self-care and noninvasive treatment options help 95% of people with low back pain recover after 12 weeks. Muscle relaxants should be secondary options, and imaging (such as an MRI) and surgery should be a last resort. However, certain “red-flag” symptoms, such as fever or loss of bladder and bowel control, may require immediate testing and intervention.
If you’re a UnitedHealthcare member, you may have more affordable access to non-invasive treatment options, such as chiropractic or physical therapy appointments. Check your health benefit plan to see if these options are available to you.**
Even for people with persistent low back pain that lasts more than two months, only a small percentage may need to have more invasive procedures or surgery. By taking preventive steps – and selecting evidence-based care approaches – you may help improve your chances of a favorable recovery.
* OptumLabs, 2018 Opioid KPI Metrics
** Eligible employers with fully insured plans that include coverage for physical therapy and chiropractic visits have this benefit at no additional cost; eligible plan participants must have remaining physical therapy or chiropractic visits under their plan; the new benefit design does not increase the maximum number of covered physical therapy or chiropractic visits per year.