Anchorage chiropractors say that over the last year, they have seen an increase in patients with posture- and stress-related pain.
They attribute at least some of the problems to a switch that many Alaskans have made over the last year — doing some or all of their work from home to avoid coronavirus transmission.
“I would easily say that all my patients that were sent home to work from home, they did have an increase in back pain, neck pain and headaches,” said Michael Hanifen, owner and practitioner at North Star Chiropractic Wellness in South Anchorage.
Ryan Dachowski, a chiropractor and co-owner at Whole Family Chiropractic in Anchorage, explained that the problem is his patients’ ad-hoc home working environments that are not always set up to provide adequate support to the back and neck.
“We have a lot of people, basically their ergonomics at home are a card table with a computer on it and a folding chair,” he said. “And that’s not really designed to support the appropriate curvature in the spine.”
Office furniture is often designed with proper ergonomics in mind. Most home furniture, by contrast, isn’t meant to be used for eight hours a day.
“You just can’t sit in bed for eight hours and not end up with issues,” Hanifen said.
Chiropractic care involves the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries and pain, with particular focus on the proper alignment of the spine. Practitioners treat their patients using adjustments or spinal manipulations to reduce pain.
Hanifen said that in addition to improper working environments, the most concerning change he has seen in his patients over the last year has been increased levels of pandemic-related stress and anxiety.
“I’ve been a chiropractor for the last 17 years, and this is the most stress I’ve seen in my patients,” Hanifen said. “This last year just never eased up on anyone.”
His patients have cited the election, the pandemic, changing mandates and the economy as top stressors over the past several months.
He said he can often recognize bodily stress before a patient says anything at all.
“I can literally feel a patient that comes in, and they’re just stressed beyond belief,” Hanifen said.
“As soon as they lay on the table, I know exactly the kind of day they had, or year they had,” he said.
And it’s not just adult patients who are feeling stressed.
Jessica Dachowski, also a chiropractor and co-owner of Whole Family Chiropractic in Anchorage who specializes in pediatrics and pregnancy, said that she has seen an increase in anxiety among her youngest patients.
She thinks that stress is linked to a sense of a loss of control and lower rates of physical activity during the pandemic, with schools closed and after-school activities paused.
“Little ones, their lives are not totally in their control anyway,” Jessica Dachowski said. “And part of that is developmentally normal. But when we add in changes at home, school and play, all those things increase their stress levels, and then they really feel out of control. So what we’re seeing really is significantly elevated cases of anxiety in these kids.”
The problem with too much stress over an extended period of time is elevated levels of certain hormones like cortisol coursing through the body.
“Although (these hormones) keep you alert, say, when a bear is chasing you, they are not appropriate to have running all day,” Hanifen said.
Elevated stress levels can compromise the immune system, and lead to other health problems.
“At the beginning of any kind of flight and response, we see anxiety,” Jessica Dachowski said. “But unfortunately over a long period of time, we see anxiety turning into depression, and depression turning into self-harm, and all the way up to suicide.”
The three doctors emphasized that one-size-fits-all medical advice is ill-advised, and that patients experiencing any kind of pain should see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
But they did say that finding ways to avoid sitting for many hours at a time, finding healthy ways to reduce stress and investing in quality office furniture can often help.
“Set an alarm on your phone every 45 minutes to stand up and walk around,” Ryan Dachowski said. Hanifen had another suggestion: “Find a stress-relieving activity like going to the gym.”
Otherwise, that stress can show up in the form of tight muscles, muscle spasms and dehydration.
“Your body tells me everything,” Hanifen said.