Thankfully, working from home is not a new thing for me. I’ve been doing it for five years because of my multiple chronic health issues. My desk, chair, and laptop are all set up (relatively) ergonomically to help reduce the arthritis-related pain, stiffness, and fatigue that happen when I sit too long.
This means I haven’t had the sudden musculoskeletal pain symptoms that many working from home for the first time are experiencing as they hunch in awkward positions over laptops in any spare space they can find.
I am grateful for that, but my pain has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic all the same.
I’ve had a mix of inflammatory and mechanical pain issues going back many years. Among other things, I have rheumatoid arthritis in my hands and feet, ankylosing spondylitis in my sacroiliac joints (the joints that connect the pelvis to the spine) and spinal stenosis and spondylolisthesis in my lumbar spine.
Spondylolisthesis occurs when one vertebral body slips forward over the one below it. In my case, this is associated with a stress fracture in the facet joint that supports the vertebrae. Spinal stenosis refers to the narrowing of the spinal canal, which can then choke the spinal cord, leading to fluctuating levels of sciatic pain, tight muscles, and numbness down one or both legs.
For many types of back pain, appropriate exercise is one of the key forms of treatment as it improves core muscle strength and joint flexibility. Before the coronavirus lockdown in Australia, where I live, I managed my conditions reasonably well through a combination of medications, basic daily stretches, weekly hatha yoga classes, and monthly chiropractic appointments. I also love my heat packs and a good massage.
I don’t do all this exercise and self-care because I am “good” or trying to maintain some sort of image. I’m not motivated by losing weight or getting more fit. If they happen, that’s great but they are not enough to get me moving on their own. My primary motivator is to reduce pain.
My pain levels increase after just a day or two without some form of exercise, and the higher the levels, the less I can function generally. The opposite is also true. More of the right kinds of exercise equals less pain. It really is “move it or lose it” for me.
I had just started seeing a physiotherapist again and he was about to sign me up for hydrotherapy classes.
Then came the coronavirus lockdown and that changed everything.
The first thing that changed in terms of my pain management regimen was that my yoga classes were cancelled indefinitely. That was a real blow on many levels.
First, I know from experience that I am much more likely to stick to a regular exercise routine when I have signed up to attend a specific class at a specific time. It’s that sense of commitment (plus the thought of my pain levels if I don’t go) that gets me out the door, even when I’m feeling crappy and I just want to stay in bed.
Our class has also turned into a lovely friendship group and we usually go out for a coffee after each session. That social interaction has been just as good for my mental health as the postures are for my physical health. This double whammy is why this yoga class has been the thing I’ve missed the most during the lockdown, even more so than missing my family and friends in some ways.
Thankfully, I’ve still been able to attend my in-person chiro and physio appointments, although they’ve also changed in order to meed COVID-19 practice guidelines. My physio gave me a list of daily exercises to do at home and they have really helped me to reduce my back pain and muscle stiffness.
I had not walked for exercise for a long time. But seeing more and more people out and about getting some fresh air during the lockdown (social distantly, of course) inspired me to do the same a few times.
It is currently autumn here in Australia, so the foliage colors in the late afternoon sunshine have been lovely and that’s made me want to get outside more, too.
Even though most complementary health services have remained open here, many people have been reluctant to leave their homes, especially those with chronic health issues who may be at higher risk for coronavirus complications. To continue to help their clients, many have switched to offering appointments and exercise classes via video links.
It’s true: We’ve always had access to exercise videos via YouTube and the like. They’ve been handy for following in your own time or replaying them as needed, but the communication is only one way. There is no real-time interaction between you and the instructor, so you don’t get any feedback.
I started following some live-streamed exercise classes on Facebook (run by a rheumatology and allied health clinic) when my yoga classes stopped. These were a reasonable alternative as I still had to join in at a specific time and I could use the chat box to communicate with the instructor and other participants.
When the same organization started offering gentle yoga classes via Zoom, I jumped at the opportunity. Thankfully, I remembered just before the first session (while I was still wearing PJs and sporting “bed hair”) that I would be visible on screen so I quickly changed into something slightly more presentable.
Seriously, though, I’ve found the two-way live communication very helpful. The instructor can share suggestions and encourage each of us, based on our own abilities, and everyone can smile and wave to each other. That kind of human connection is invaluable.
If these online classes continue after the restrictions end, I’ll strongly consider continuing them plus going to my face-to-face class to help me keep my conditions under control.
Overall, I think I’ve been lucky during the lockdown. I’ve had a roof over my head and some regular income. Australia’s early action on the COVID-19 pandemic meant that we haven’t had anywhere near as many cases here as other countries have had. Plus, I’ve been able to continue my health care appointments, even though some of them look different now.
So, just like all the other twists and turns in my patient journey so far, I’ve adapted and continue to move forward the best way I can. As long as I can keep moving (literally), I know things will be OK.
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