A couple of weeks into lockdown, Stephanie Haddad was struggling to move.
Like many working parents, her makeshift desk was the dining table alongside her young daughters and their schoolwork, and she had swapped her regular gym sessions for high-intensity virtual classes and an occasional run.
But she soon found herself suffering from severe back pain – and gentle exercise, stretches and heat packs just weren’t cutting it. She needed professional help.
“The physio said I was twisting like an old woman,” says the finance manager, from Melbourne’s Thornbury. “It was from lack of movement in my upper spine. That might have been due to my desk setup or too much exercise or even stress.”
Ms Haddad is not alone. In a matter of weeks, our lives and routines have been turned upside down. Many of us have swapped desk chairs for couches, gym sessions for jogging, walking commutes for six steps to the next room. And some are seeing their bodies bear the brunt as a result.
Adam Culvenor, a physiotherapist and senior research fellow at La Trobe University’s sport and exercise medicine research centre, says poor ergonomic home office set-ups can well lead to stiff necks and backs. But he believes new exercise routines are the more likely culprit.
“Bodies don’t really like changing activity very quickly,” he says. “So if you are someone who doesn’t normally run, then I wouldn’t suggest you do a 5-10 kilometre run as fast as you can without any training because your body isn’t going to cope particularly well.”
But for those of us who crashed through the gates as isolation began in a bid to keep ourselves fit and sane, and are now trying to muddle through aches and pains, Dr Culvenor has some advice.
He says regular exercise is more likely to help a niggle than complete rest, so long as the pain remains below a four or five out of 10. And don’t go too fast, too soon.
“We shouldn’t be fighting pain, we should be managing pain,” he says. “Because pain is a good thing in most cases. It’s protective for our body. It tells us that there is something wrong… and therefore we back off or protect our body.”
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If an ache or pain is waking you at night, causing stiffness for more than 30 minutes first thing in the morning or stopping you from doing the things you love, it’s time to seek help – either via new Telehealth appointments or in person.
Dr John Booth, an accredited exercise physiologist at the UNSW medicine lifestyle clinic, sees patients a little further down the line on the pain spectrum – those with chronic musculoskeletal pain.
He says fighting pain can be stressful, which can then make the pain even worse.
“Worsening pain, difficulty performing your normal daily activities, taking more medication or using other drugs such as alcohol, not coping physically or emotionally are indications you should consult with your doctor,” Dr Booth says.
“Your GP can help develop a treatment plan that is specific to your needs, and in some instances, refer you to other health professionals, such as exercise physiologists and physiotherapists, with expertise in pain management.”