I can imagine many of us, interpreters, translators, and even folks in other professions are in the same boat. I’m incredibly grateful that I can work from the safety of my home office and minimize my exposure, but it certainly comes with its own occupational hazards (I suppose you could say). While I’ve made up for how stationary my job has become by walking whenever I can, my biggest struggle recently has been neck, shoulder, and back pain from sitting at my desk for long periods of time.
You all should know by now that I’m a huge proponent of self-care for interpreters, so naturally I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of the tactics I’ve found to be helpful with my newfound occupational aches and pains!
Part 1: The Proper Setup
Part of your neck, shoulder, and back pain can be prevented with the proper setup. I bought a new office chair back in the spring with good lower lumbar support, but I unfortunately discovered my desk was too short for the arms to pass underneath the bottom of the desk, meaning I was sitting further away from the screen and in a less-than-optimal position. As a result, I have a tendency to lean closer, hunching my back and shoulders. I also began to discover that after a few hours, my tailbone starts to hurt from my poor posture.
In an effort to alleviate my newfound back, shoulder, neck, and tailbone pain, I purchased a memory foam posture corrector pillow which just so happens to raise me up in my seat just enough to be able to lower the arms down low enough to pass under my desk. It kills… five birds with one stone, so to speak!
Part 2: Incorporating Regular Movement
I’ve also found that taking “movement breaks” for at least thirty seconds every hour or so help me with not only my sore neck and shoulders, but also with eye strain. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, and I happen to have a smart watch that reminds me after an hour of inactivity to do something. It will even give me some suggestions for activities, such as a torso twist, and count my rotations before it will stop bugging me and let me go back to work.
Relieving Neck, Shoulder, and Back Pain
Even if I do everything mentioned above to try and prevent aches and pains, they still happen. I feel it most in my neck and shoulders, but sometimes it can creep into my upper back or even all the way down to my lower back or tailbone. In these cases I have three simple steps that I employ: stretch, TENS, heat.
Once I’m sore, even if I feel like I need to avoid using those muscles, I know from my experiences in medical interpreting that getting those muscles moving will make them feel better. My two favorite resources for stretches are:
- Try This: 17 Exercises to Relieve Upper Back Pain, Neck Pain, and More
This is an article from Healthline that includes 10 stretches and 7 exercises (some of which involve small weights) to relieve back and neck pain. What I really love about this article is it includes animated GIFs that loop over and over with the movements for each stretch/exercise. I really like the fact that this article is medically reviewed! All in all the first 10 stretches take me about 10 minutes, but I can limit reps to cut down on the time if I need to. It’s also very low-intensity.
- Yoga for Neck, Shoulders, Upper Back – 10 Minute Yoga Quickie – Yoga With Adriene
If yoga is your thing, you’ll love this 10-minute video. The only caveat for me is my problematic shoulder. I dislocated my shoulder when I was younger and still have some rotator cuff issues, so if I’m having a shoulder flare-up, this one is a little too high-intensity for me. You’ll also want to find a comfortable spot on the floor (preferably carpeted or with a yoga mat) to do these. The movements are all interconnected and it is VERY thorough.
One of the best purchases I’ve made in recent history at the recommendation of a friend was my very own TENS unit. What’s a TENS unit? Well, if you’ve ever interpreted for physical or occupational therapy, you may have seen something similar. A TENS unit (which stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) is a small device that stimulates muscles with a mild electrical current using little electrode patches.
I initially purchased it for my aforementioned problematic shoulder, but I now use it for everything. I suffer from monthly migraines and it helps me with the associated muscle stiffness in my neck and back. I pulled a muscle in my upper arm and it helped me tremendously with that. I preached the gospel of the TENS unit to my husband when he threw out his lower back, and it gave him immediate relief. I not only use it for shoulder/neck pain from sitting at the computer, but also as a relaxing little treat for myself when I deserve a little TLC.
It’s definitely one of my top tools in my interpreter self-care arsenal. Best of all? It only cost me $20 and is the gift that keeps on giving.
Usually the TENS device does a good job at calming down my aching neck, shoulders, and back, but I always finish it off with a little bit of heat to relax everything a little bit more. While I do have all sorts of heating pads and hot water bottles, my absolute favorite solution for my neck and shoulders is my lavender-scented warmie wrap.
I have the hippo (not pictured) and this thing has a permanent home next to my desk. You pop it in the microwave, it heats up and stays heated for about half an hour. I’m a sucker for lavender, and it’s filled with lavender buds and flaxseed. It gives off a warm, moist heat, smells amazing, and I can either drape it over my shoulder if it’s bothering me, or around my neck. I loved mine so much that I bought one for every one of my family members last year for Christmas!
Once the heat wears off, if I still need some relief, I just pop it back in the microwave for a little more time and head on back to my office.
What Works for You?
So, these are my tips for coping with neck, shoulder, and back pain as an interpreter who now does a lot of work from home, but I’m sure you all likely have your own! What other strategies have you found effective for managing aches and pains as a result of sitting at your desk for long periods of time? Be sure to comment and if I like your suggestions, I may edit the article to incorporate some of them.[Cover photo by Ba Tik from Pexels]