Is Quarantine Giving You Headaches, Back Pain, and More?

For people who aren’t of working age, the orthopedic concerns are a little different. Elderly people, who are at the highest risk from the virus itself, have also experienced some of the worst physical consequences of isolation. “The elderly are not taking their walks and are getting weaker in their legs,” Singh said. “They are losing confidence in their gait, which causes further weakness, and they enter a vicious cycle.” Many people have sharply reduced their exercise this year as gyms have closed, or they fear catching the coronavirus at those that have reopened, but for younger adults, who are generally more physically fit and less prone to injury, regaining some movement in creative ways is easier, and novel, unsupervised exercise is less risky (although Singh noted that he has seen some injuries from people who have used their new Pelotons vigorously but incorrectly). For older Americans, maintaining a baseline of essential flexibility and stamina while isolated increases the risk of an unsupervised fall—a source of potentially deadly injuries that appears to have become more common since early 2020.

On average, kids are more resilient in the face of the physical stresses of isolation than their brittler-bodied parents or grandparents, but watching online classes—and skipping recess, gym class, and all the incidental opportunities to be rambunctious with friends that in-person school provides—has still taken a toll on many children. Nancy Durban, a pediatric physical therapist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told me that a combination of increased anxiety and uncomfortable computer setups has created a pain spiral for some of her patients. Anxiety “increases their muscle tension, which then makes them hurt more, which makes them move less, which makes them then sleep worse,” Durban told me. “That increases their anxiety and decreases their ability to move again.” As some schools have reopened and resumed extracurricular activities, she has also noted an uptick in sports injuries among kids, who might not have understood that months of isolation diminished their physical capacity to play soccer or run track, or who were simply overexcited to be back with their teammates.

It’s not just our muscles and bones that are burdened. People spending more time gazing at screens have found that their vision is suffering, too. “When people stare at the screen all day, they don’t blink very often, and their eyes tend to dry out,” Sunir Garg, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and a professor at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, told me. “When the eyes feel kind of dry, scratchy, and prickly, it can make things blurry.” That can be exacerbated by spending all your waking hours indoors, in bone-dry heating and cooling systems.

painting of woman with headache
Hannah R Anderson

Even for people who spent their workdays indoors and on a computer before the pandemic, the routine of going into work—the process of getting dressed, going outside, getting in a car or boarding a train, interacting with co-workers, attending a meeting or two, and maybe going to happy hour afterward—likely provided enough variation and visual novelty to head off some of the vision problems people are having now. One thing Garg cautions against faulting, though, is the light given off by computers and phones—so-called blue-light glasses have become a hot commodity in the past year; sales of at least one brand have more than doubled as people look for ways to soothe their strained, tired eyes. Absorbing that light in the evenings can throw off sleep patterns, but there is no evidence that it harms vision or strains eyes. “There’s a ton of blue light coming from the sun,” Garg said. “When most people had outdoor jobs, we were getting oodles more blue light from the sun than we ever would from our screens.”

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