How’s Your Back?

Photo: Rattapawee Lapnan / EyeEm/Getty Images

You know how I remember it’s day 35 million of a global pandemic? I sit down at my desk and listen to my back scream. The pain has burrowed itself into my lower left side in what I like to think of as a pulsing, fist-sized red orb.

The intensity ranges from an annoying friend who won’t go home (tolerable but irritating) to a colicky baby (piercing and constant). On the worst days I fantasize about a doctor putting me under, cutting open my lower back with a scalpel, gently removing the fist-sized orb and sending me on my way with a lollipop and functioning spine. Instead, I pop two Advil, numb the pain with an ice pack, and try to fall asleep.

Quite simply, my back is mad. For anyone who has been lucky enough to work from home through the COVID-19 outbreak, I bet yours is pissed off too. And it probably will be for a lot longer. Employees at companies like Google and Business Insider won’t be heading to an office until summer 2021, and those at Facebook and Twitter will be allowed to work remotely even post-pandemic (whenever that is!!!). While that’s good news for job flexibility, it’s bad for backs, which already cause pain for 80 percent of Americans and are one of the main reasons we miss work and school.

For me, remote work has led to spinal disaster. Even though I have a decent setup — I’m not using my kitchen counter as a makeshift desk or my couch as a chair — I basically never move. Pre-pandemic, my back would get at least 40 minutes of upright time during the commute before I compressed its discs for an entire work day. And even then, there were walks with colleagues, walks to meeting rooms, and time spent lingering by the coffee machine to stretch out the ol’ vertebrae. By 6:30 I would say, “You know what, back? Even though I really want to hit the couch and binge 90-Day Fiancé, I’ll grant you a smooth 20 minutes on the elliptical.”

Now, 48 hours sometimes pass before I go outside. Gyms are closed, the ultimate excuse not to work out, and the ab muscles that are supposed to help protect my back are hidden under a layer of pasta (I think they’re a bit mad at me, too). Since nothing marks the end of a work day, “I’ll just finish that email” bleeds into another hour or two at the computer, and by the time I log off, I’m too exhausted to do the workout video I paid $5 for when I was feeling ambitious earlier in the day. Instead, I’ll do a few lazy stretches while watching TV, and when my back throbs in bed I’ll scream, “But I exercised!!! What more do you want from me?!” into my pillow.

Every time I briefly consider how it’s probably unhealthy to be living like a sedentary octogenarian, I save a yoga video on YouTube “for later,” swallow a painkiller, and promptly return to my bad habits. But if I ever want to stand for the duration of a concert or sit for the duration of a flight, I know the abuse must end.

Even in the best of times, our backs are a design disaster. It’s a flexible mess of 26 vertebrae with protective, jellylike layers between them that we are constantly tearing apart with the mere act of walking. One evolutionary anthropologist described the anatomy as tea cups and saucers with a heavy human head on top. A comforting image! I suspect that like anyone, my back just wants to be heard. And if you’ve been working from home, maybe yours does, too?

Next time my back is yelling, I plan to form a concerned expression, nod earnestly in agreement, and say, “Yes, yes, this situation HAS gotten out of control.” Then maybe I’ll make a kind, proactive gesture, like ordering one of those big balls to sit on that I’d be too ashamed to bring into a workplace. Maybe I won’t work ten hours a day just because time has no meaning, or I’ll become that person who uses a foam roller in the middle of the day!

If you think about it, now is the perfect time to do embarrassing things that could help your body, like saying out loud “I hear you old girl” to your aching spine and popping a downward dog between meetings. I know that along with so many other things, the COVID-19 outbreak could permanently ruin my relationship with my back. But instead, maybe I’ll try and save it.

How’s Your Back?