How to End Bad Positions in Confinement (Learning from Astronauts)

By Andrew Winnard, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Nick Caplan, Northumbria University, Newcastle

Confinement could be very bad for our backs, as certain measures taken to combat the coronavirus pandemic have caused many of us to be working from home right now. This implies that we may not be moving too much, and also the configuration of our desktop (and also the posture we adopt while working) may not be as good as it should be. All of these things can cause back pain to appear.

The bad posture that we usually adopt when we work in front of the desk is really very similar to the one that astronauts maintain in space flights in conditions of zero gravity. Normally it is a posture in which we are leaning forward, with the head also forward and in which the natural curvatures of the spine do not occur. On the other hand, being in space also has similar effects on the body as being in bed all day.

At the Northumbria University Laboratory of Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation, our team of researchers explores ways for astronauts to keep their spines healthy during their space missions. But these investigations can also help keep our spines healthy for those of us who, on Earth, work from home.

At a very basic level, the spine is a structure made up of 33 bones called vertebrae. Between these vertebrae there are thick discs that look like gelatin and that create space for them along the entire spine so that we can turn or bend.

Around the vertebrae are many large and small muscles that help stabilize the spine and generate movement. All of these muscles maintain very complex communication with the brain to coordinate and maintain upright posture (and, in general, stability) when we move or sit. If only one of these vertebrae, discs or muscles becomes irritated, this can cause back pain to appear.

When we lean forward a lot, we stop using the small postural muscles that control the normal curvature of the spine. Over time, these muscles become smaller, weak, and fail to activate properly when needed. Thus, if we are working from home, our tips for astronauts may be useful.

Four tips that will help us keep the spine healthy

1. Get moving. During your workday, try taking time to move around a bit every hour or every two hours. For your spine this means smooth rotations and forward, backward and sideways movements. Avoid forced movements, and do not use weights or resistance when doing them. It is as if you are pouring oil into the joints and circulating that oil through gentle gestures.

2. Configure your space well. On the International Space Station, astronauts float instead of sitting, and it is recommended that they try to exercise and maintain a posture as straight as possible to maintain strength in the back. On Earth, to maintain proper posture, making sure that we sit correctly is key. Setting up your desk, chair, and office equipment appropriately is also essential.

Make sure that the screen is directly in front of you, so that its middle part is at eye level. And also make sure to sit in a good chair whose backrest doesn't tilt, but stays straight. The keyboard should be directly in front, at a height that allows your elbows to be bent at 90 degrees, and ideally your wrists should be supported as well. Make sure your feet are also flat on the floor in front of you.

3. Get an upright posture natural. Try to avoid leaning forward. Even ask someone to watch you from the side. If you are hunched over, leaning forward, or with your neck bent back to view the screen, you have a high chance of back pain. You can smear and recount to achieve good posture of the spine by doing the following:

– Try to keep your ears in line with your shoulders, and the latter, in turn, in line with your hip.

– Try to make sure your head is in a vertical line on your torso, and not tilted forward or backward.

– Ideally, your lower back should have a slight inward curve (but only light, since an excessive curvature could also cause pain).

– If you have back pain, it may be helpful to put a small pillow behind your lower back. Similarly, lying on your back on the floor once or twice a day may help you move your back to a better position.

4. Exercise. If it happens to you like astronauts and you have weak stabilizing muscles of the spine due to bad postures (due to the conditions of space flight in your case, or due to the lack of exercise due to confinement in ours) it could be useful to do some exercises to strengthen the spine.

But remember to gently move the navel inward, toward the spine (30-40% of the full range of motion possible) to mobilize the proper muscles. Remember to move around a bit every hour or every two hours, and when the workday is over, taking a walk can be helpful in reducing back pain and strengthening it.

Of course, being in normal gravity is different from floating in space. And on the other hand, if you see that your back problems are not improving, making an appointment with a physical therapist can be useful to send you exercises specifically designed for you.

Andrew Winnard, Lead for the Aerospace Medicine Systematic Review Group and Lecturer, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Nick Caplan, Professor of Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.