For more than a year, some of us have been working in makeshift offices, hunched over computers on beds, floors or coffee tables. Stuck at home, we’ve taken on projects and have been climbing ladders, painting walls and using tools that once collected dust in the basement. Some of us stopped exercising entirely—or launched into fitness routines without proper preparation.
The result, doctors say, is more injuries among people hunkered down during the pandemic. “I’ve seen neck strains, rotator cuff injuries, low-back strains,” says Carlo Milani, a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. That’s not all. Dr. Milani also is seeing “lumbar disc injuries, cervical spine disc injuries, pinched nerves in the neck, pinched nerves in the lower back.”
A November study in the journal Injury Epidemiology found that 26% of roughly 2,000 respondents reported a household injury between March and June 2020. That contrasts with a 2017 national survey in which 14% of people reported one in the three months before the survey, says Andrea C. Gielen, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy and first author of the study. “That’s a big difference,” Dr. Gielen says. “More than a quarter of households experienced an injury.”
Falls were the most common, she says, making up 32% of injuries at home. Others include swallowing medications or household products, being scalded or burned, and being cut by something sharp or from running into something or someone.
Here, doctors weigh in on heading off common home injuries.
Renovation projects, yard work and moving injuries
Early in the pandemic, people with time on their hands took on home projects, says Roy Cardoso, an orthopedic hand surgeon at Baptist Health’s Miami Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Institute. “They were taking the opportunity to lay down a new floor or fix things that were broken.”
The result: aches, pains and acute injuries. One patient was trying to fix a cabinet when the screwdriver slipped and sliced a nerve in his thumb, Dr. Cardoso says. Others have come in with lacerations or tendon cuts. Some were injured while doing yard work or moving things.
“If you are starting a home-improvement project, be diligent with how you’re doing it,” Dr. Cardoso says.
Max Fitzgerald, a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor and assistant professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says he has seen overuse injuries in some patients. One got shoulder pain from painting. Another had back spasms from lifting boxes in the basement. Dr. Fitzgerald advises taking breaks during yard work and renovations and making sure to hydrate. “Don’t try to do 10 hours of work if you’ve been sitting on your couch for a year,” he says.
Dr. Milani says he has seen injuries from lifting and moving heavy boxes. He teaches patients how to lift heavy items properly and how much weight they can safely lift. He advises them to focus on keeping weight close to the body and centered between the legs. “Focus on squatting with hip-hinging motion rather than having whatever you’re lifting out away from your body and just bending at the waist,” he says.
Doctors are seeing injuries among people who turned to home workouts when gyms were closed or tried new fitness regimens they weren’t ready for.
“There was a sort of improvising in terms of home-gym workouts and there wasn’t necessarily a smooth and natural transition,” says Dr. Cardoso.
Dr. Fitzgerald says he has seen a few patients who tried new workouts and herniated a disc. Others who are using online videos for new circuit-training routines have developed bursitis or inflammation of the fluid sacs in the shoulder from not using the correct technique or resting enough.
Dr. Milani says one patient who used to do yoga and Pilates took up running for the first time. Instead of easing into it, she ran too much and developed a stress fracture in her hip. He advises starting slow with a new exercise routine. “Make sure you can do the exercises correctly before you progress to being able to do it for a prolonged duration,” he says.
If you feel pain during a workout, stop. “Your body is telling you something. You’re probably not doing it correctly,” he says.
Lack of exercise also is fueling injuries. Normally active 37-year-old Patrick Brix says he developed what he thought was a herniated disc in his back over the summer. “We took the pandemic very seriously and didn’t go out or do anything. That meant sitting a lot on the same spot on the couch that slowly went down and down and down,” says Mr. Brix, an audiologist in Willow Springs, Ill.
He went to see Dr. Fitzgerald in January and learned that he didn’t have a herniated disc but rather a weakened quadratus lumborum, a stabilizing muscle in the lower back, due to inactivity. “For me to not be moving was an issue,” he said. He began a daily five-minute exercise program that included lots of planks. A few months later, he says he is almost completely recovered and back to 12-mile weekend bike rides.
Poorly designed workspaces are giving rise to ergonomic injuries.
“Home workstations are the dining table or couch with a coffee table,” says Dr. Milani. He has had patients who work on the floor or even in their beds.
He and others at HSS do virtual visits to evaluate work-from-home setups and tell patients how to improve them. Dr. Milani suggests that patients vary their positions and take walking breaks. Sometimes he recommends lumbar supports for sitting.
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“I think that the increased work from home has definitely led to a much higher prevalence of soft-tissue injuries,” Dr. Fitzgerald says. “I’m seeing a lot more neck and back pain and numbness and tingling in hands and arms in otherwise young and healthy individuals.” Fortunately, the injuries aren’t serious or lasting, he says, and the culprit almost always is bad posture and poor positioning of a keyboard, monitor or mouse.
“Very few people are able to achieve an ideal ergonomic position in a makeshift space,” he says.
The other problem, he says, is that people are staying in the same position for a long time and not moving enough. Every few hours, change the way you sit and schedule walking breaks, even if it’s just walking around the block or up and down the stairs a few times, Dr. Fitzgerald advises.
Screens should be at eye level, with your mouse and keyboard directly in front of you, and your arms and knees at a 90-degree angle. Stretching can ease chronic stiffness from being in the same position for long periods of time. “Movement is key,” he says.
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