Is Back Pain the Next Epidemic?

In the scrum for masks, tests and toilet paper, posture wasn’t at the top of everyone’s list. Now it should be.
COVID-19 pandemic news, COVID-19 news, news on COVID-19, coronavirus pandemic news, back pain pandemic news, lockdown back pain, science news, health news, impact on COVID-19 on health, Teresa Shao

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March 11, 2022 14:51 EDT

Yes, the last two years have been stressful. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made us more relaxed in some ways. Executives attend meetings in their boxer shorts. Work-from-home loungewear popped up in clothing stores in 2020. Instagram accounts runneth over with memes parodying working from home — day drinking, dirty hair — and remote learning with parents using shower tiles for a whiteboard.

Since the Start of the Pandemic, Americans Are Drinking Too Much


But this new relaxation of standards might be a problem when it comes to posture. The usual office equipment people relied upon didn’t come home with them at the beginning of the lockdown. Futons and laptops replaced ergonomic chairs and desktop computers for weeks, then months and now years. Working from a laptop computer is one of the worst things for one’s back. Working from a sofa might be the worst. 

From Back Problems to Developing an App

Three years ago, I suffered from spinal disc subluxation. This isn’t typical for a teen. In fact, it’s so rare that, in a study on the prevalence of subluxation, people under the age of 65 were excluded because researchers didn’t see them as a statistically significant population. As I waited in line for care, I talked to other patients who explained to me how much my problem might be caused by poor posture.

Movies like “My Fair Lady” and even “Pretty Woman” taught us that there’s one correct posture. It’s a classist and sexist idea that someone has to be in on the polite secret that there’s one right way to sit or stand. But no one-size-fits-all position optimizes health. Rather, everyone has their own correct posture

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Because of my experience, I developed an app called SpineCheck whereby users can take a photo of their backs and see if their posture is optimal. It’s not a replacement for medical advice, of course, but it’s a nudge to get people to see that how they’re sitting and standing might not be up to snuff — for their particular bodies. 

Balancing a book on one’s head Eliza Doolittle-style seems petty next to a global pandemic, but posture isn’t a trifling concern. About 18% of a country’s population will develop lower back pain in their lives and suboptimal posture contributes to it. It’s the number-one cause of disability worldwide. The way chronic back pain impacts quality of life makes it a real threat. 

And that threat has actually been magnified by the conditions imposed by the global health crisis. Between shifting all activity to our home spaces, the challenges to our mood (there’s an undeniable link between posture and mood — change one and the other follows) and a deterioration of our behavioral standards, people aren’t attuned to the same details they once were. We’re so off our game that some workers may have to “relearn” politeness when offices open back up. Virtual work/school may benefit many, but regardless of one’s appreciation of the home office or school, we must admit that we don’t act the same when we work or study outside of the office or classroom. We get lax.

Are You Sitting Upright?

No one has studied this specifically, but I would venture that posture has deteriorated population-wise during the pandemic. It’s a mere matter of common sense. As the world crumbles, people likely aren’t sitting and standing ramrod straight. In the scrum for masks, tests and toilet paper, posture wasn’t a characteristic that made a person more likely to survive. And the invitation to slump and relax was too good to pass up. 

It can be alarmist to predict spin-off epidemics. Between anxiety and depression to obesity to sleep disturbance to substance abuse, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a cascade of health problems. It’s unclear how we stay out of a permanent state of panic.  

But panic prods prevention, and prevention is good politics. And back pain, a preventable chronic condition, costs us a lot of money every year. It’s the second-highest cause of health burden in China. It also costs between $67.5 and $94.1 billion globally. It’s also the leading cause of sick days, the days when employees accomplish little to nothing, whether they’re in the office or not. It’s the sixth-largest drain on the health economy in the United States, and it causes losses of billions of pounds in lost productivity in the United Kingdom.

Work From Home and Remote Learning

Neither working from home nor learning remotely is over. As of September 2021, 45% of full-time employees in the US were working from home. Now, 61% of them want to stay put. The city of Flint, Michigan will be remote schooling its students for the near future. Even without pandemic risks, some school districts have come to lean on distance learning because of school fights. That means we will probably continue to cut ourselves slack with how we sit and stand. 

In China, 45% of firms offer work-from-home situations. Around 57% of employees like a hybrid model of three days in the office and two at home. Students in the city of Xi’an were allowed back to in-person school in January after another lockdown. Schools throughout China are preparing for the eventuality of returning to distance learning, if not for COVID-19, then for another reason. The preparation comes as most parents in China realized that the initial switch to remote school was implemented quickly, which meant that education over virtual portals was less than ideal.

At-home employees and remote-based students can buy better computers, desks and chairs if they can afford them. But none of that will help if they don’t know what position works best for them. Just being aware that posture is at risk is important for long-term health. 

Even a return to the workplace or school doesn’t guarantee that people will sit upright. And some medical experts say that posture and back pain aren’t connected. My experience tells me otherwise. 

I don’t think that differing opinions on posture and back pain should be enough to convince people not to take their posture more seriously in a post-pandemic world. My pain was so bad that I often curled up in pain and I suffered for months. People should pay more attention to their posture as we climb out of this terrible time. There’s no reason to risk feeling even worse one day in the future when we’re supposed to be feeling better. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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