The Literal Pain Of Working From Home

Photographed by Jessica Garcia.
Complaining about work is normal. In fact, it's an utterly ordinary thing to do even if you generally enjoy your job. We might groan about a tough project on a tight deadline, an incompetent coworker or an unsympathetic manager, low pay, and long hours. But there's a kind of work-related reality that hasn't been grumbled about enough: the physical pain of working a desk job, which has only intensified during these long months of working from home.
Some of this silence might have to do with the fact that we feel lucky to be able to work from home at all. You may wonder if it's insensitive to be talking about the pain from working a cushy white-collar job while other workers are actively facing danger. The great COVID work-from-home era has, however, only highlighted how unhealthy our work habits and setups are.
We've read the many detailed breakdowns of why sitting for prolonged periods of time is unhealthy, but it's another thing to actually combat that on a daily basis when you have a million tasks to complete and barely enough time to scarf down lunch. Our homes never asked to be offices and many of our cramped apartments were ill-prepared to serve as a workspace, but we've made do, whether by purchasing new office furniture out of pocket or by using the bar cart as a desk. We've noted that the typical stiffness from a long day of work has evolved into pulsing, radiating pain and wondered, Is this normal? Can I just keep ignoring it and hope it’ll go away? Why do I feel like such a cave-dwelling, vitamin D-deprived fleshbag these days?
What follows is not medical advice of any kind. It's simply a space to vent and share the very real ways sitting and working can lead to chronic pain that you struggle with long-term. As two weeks turned into two months turned into almost a whole year, the makeshift nature of our WFH setups has underscored the fact that crouching over a desk and squinting at a screen for over eight hours a day is no way to live. Ahead, R29 readers share their range of WFH ailments, and what they've done to address them.
Tamar, 27
"I have a sore lower back and back spasms. The pain feels like I have a metal spike inserted into my lower back. A few weeks ago while bending over to pick something up off the floor, I felt a spasm followed by pain," Tamar says. "It lasted for a few days and I couldn't bend down, drive, or sit or stand comfortably. I had to cancel a meeting that was supposed to be in-person, and I had difficulty sitting at my desk to type up reports."
Tamar has switched up her work locations quite a bit while remote. "I used to work at the dining room table, then switched to the sofa," she says. "After my back pain, I started sitting in an office chair that I already owned. I try to minimise sitting for long periods of time on the sofa or at a dining table. I use a heating/ice pack if I start to feel any pain. I also learned a few exercises from a friend who is a physical therapist."
"[Before WFH], I already owned a cheap Target desk that I’ve used occasionally with a dining chair. After experiencing the back pain, I went to my parents' house and brought back a pristine, barely-used desk chair from high school. I had to buy risers for my desk out-of-pocket because the chair didn't fit under the desk. I use a random book to prop up my laptop so that it’s at a good typing and eye level."
Lori, 38
New York
"I've always had a tight neck and shoulders from the desk job I've worked the last 15 years. Since I started working from home, that's gotten worse, and I've started having tension headaches almost daily around my eyes and the base of my neck," says Lori. "The largest issue is the pain I'm experiencing in my right hip. At first, it only bothered me later in the day, but now it hurts while I’m sitting at my desk, throughout the day, and on weekends. It's kind of a dull ache that never goes away. I find myself stretching out my workday so I can take longer breaks while still getting my work done, which makes the day drag on. It's also affecting my quality of sleep. I'm waking up if I've been on my right side too long."
"I work at a table I have set up in my spare bedroom," she continues. "I went into my office and snagged my desk chair and a small rolling table — not sure they know about the table, but they know where I live and I'm not going anywhere! Since we might be home until next fall, I’m considering buying a standing desk that I'll pay for out of pocket."
"I work for the state, so even if we weren't in a bad budget situation, they wouldn’t pay for that kind of thing," Lori says. "I was at my sister's for almost a week and noticed the pain was almost gone even after sleeping on a sofa and carrying around a heavy baby, so it's definitely my desk setup. I need to change it or I worry I'll do permanent damage. I'm an active person — biking, snowboarding, hiking — and don't want this to prevent me from doing the things I love outside of work."
"I've gone to my chiropractor for adjustments and we did a session of pilates on the machine to stretch my hips," she shares. "I've been given physical therapy exercises too, but I'm not great at doing them at home on my own. I also use over-the-counter pain meds, apply heat, and CBD cream."
Max, 32 
"I get headaches and dry eyes in the afternoon but keep working until night — not daily, but when I need to work on a project instead of routine work," says Max. "I have stomach issues because sometimes I forget to eat if I'm really inspired or busy." She notes that she already suffers from gastritis, esophagitis, and colitis.
Max's also noticed that her neck is stiff as soon as she wakes up these days, but it becomes worse around late afternoon. "Most of this doesn't really affect my work, but when the headaches get too intense, I need to stop earlier," she says.
She usually works from her home office. "It's a corner desk that came with the house we're renting, smaller than I'd like but functional," Max says. "My husband is making me a new one but hasn't had the time." She does admit that sometimes she works from her sofa and "a very few times from bed."
"For the stomach issues, I try to eat better and also take my medication. For the headaches, I sometimes take something for the pain, but not frequently since my stomach is very sensitive. For the neck and back I do nothing, really — I sometimes massage my neck and shoulders during the day or in the shower."
Alexandra, 31
"I have pain in my neck, mid back, low back, hips," says Alexandra. She says she suffers from sciatica and piriformis syndrome. "Sitting all the time has really messed me up. Being at home means I move around less and don’t take breaks to walk for coffee or lunch — my office is downtown so I’d usually take advantage of that."
"I've always had neck and shoulder issues, but never lower back — and now my lower back is a mess from lack of proper posture and a proper office chair. I didn't want to splurge," she says. "My eyes also get incredibly tired and dry because it’s all screens, all the time. I’m an attorney, and my days used to be broken up with walking to court or other offices for depositions, and now it's all on Zoom. I also find that just sitting on my pelvic area hurts."
"I do switch up locations depending on how I'm feeling," Alexandra says, but adds that she's currently 19 weeks pregnant. "I go from my desk to the bed to the sofa and back to my desk again. I go to a chiropractor once a week and I try to stretch through the day."
"I paid out of pocket sometime in June or July for a desk that folds up, so it can be stored out of the way when needed. It's currently in our guest room, which will be a nursery," she shares. "I did expense an extra monitor so I could double screen with my laptop, but that was recent."
Christy, 37
"I have neck pain and stiffness, as well as lower and mid back pain," says Christy. "My coccyx bone also hurts despite having a super thick chair cushion. My eyes also get dry and hurt from staring at the computer screen all day."
"I recently moved to a new home and now have an entire room devoted to my home office. I bought a new desk and a new office chair, but the chair isn't really comfortable — and I bought all of it out of pocket," she says.
"I've been to the chiropractor, take ibuprofen daily, and went to my doctor recently and received steroid injections and a steroid pack for inflammation. She also gave me a prescription for low-dose Flexeril," Christy says. "I also have fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, so I already have a lot of chronic joint pain and medical issues. But I’m very thankful to be able to work from home full-time."
Kaajal, 24
New York
"I have lower back pain and stiff hips. The hip pain has been the most challenging, as it's often painful to even sit. Sometimes the hip pain radiates into my butt and lower back, making it difficult to walk," says Kaajal.
"I work mostly on my kitchen table, as this is where I've set up a second monitor but will move to a desk in my childhood bedroom, or the bed when I feel like I need to lie down," she says. "I chose the kitchen table because I felt too isolated being in my room all day, and there's an island in the kitchen with bar stools that can function as a standing desk. I've been working mostly there and trying to stand two to three hours a day to help with the pain."
Kaajal was both surprised and not surprised by the pain. "I was aware that sitting for extended periods of time shortens hamstrings and hip flexors, which can contribute to lower back pain, but as someone who is young, active, and in good health, I didn't expect this to impact me as much as it did."
"I didn't have the money to splurge on a high-end desk chair that I may not be able to use when I move back to a New York City apartment, so instead I got an ergonomic back pillow to attach to my chair, which has been helping me sit up straighter," she shares. "I also found walking and being active helps so I wake up at 7 a.m. to walk for 60 to 90 minutes — I'm trying to get 10,000 steps. I also do 20 to 30 minutes of stretching or yoga or foam rolling at night while watching TV, just to work the kinks out."
"Unfortunately, my company has confirmed no stipend or reimbursement for office furniture and supplies," she says.
Tami, 23
Tami has been working from home since April when her area went into lockdown. "After I lost my job, I started freelancing and found a remote job, so I've been at a makeshift desk/office at my parents' since then," she says.
"I fell down a flight of stairs three years ago, and my back has never been the same," she continues. "The combination of on/off back pain from that and sitting at a desk for hours on end has probably made my condition worse. I feel the pain mostly in my lower back, and it almost feels like it's coming from my spine. There are days when my back will seize and I'll be unable to walk upright, sometimes having to crawl just to get to the bathroom."
She says this particular pain has eased a little bit lately. "My dad also bought me an ergonomic chair, which has helped. I feel back pain most acutely after two hours at a desk, so I have a set of alarms on my phone that remind me to stretch," she says.
"I also have recurring knee pain from a childhood illness, and having my knees hang over the chair but not quite reaching the floor has been causing discomfort. The pain feels like my knee is being pulled out of its socket, and my knees start aching after a couple of hours. I elevate my leg on a stool to help with this."
"I work in my parents' study most often and switch between the sofa and bed on slower days," she continues. "I'm currently renovating the basement into an apartment, so I'm designating a proper work area there as well as investing in proper work furniture."
She says she wasn’t really surprised by the worsening WFH-related pain. "I thought I would be better about taking breaks," she says. "I have pretty bad posture from all the phone usage and watching Netflix in bed, but with work, I'm even worse because once I get 'in the zone' I can be at my desk for up to three hours."
"There have been quite a few mentions of home office stipends at different team meetings, but there are some constraints that have made management put it off," Tami says.
"A lot of my friends are in school or back in physical offices, so they're a lot more physically active than I am," she says, noting that because of this, it’s harder for them to understand her pain. "With those that I can complain about this to, the ones who get it, they usually just remind me that I'm a workaholic — and everyone else is good at taking breaks."