The stress, isolation and disruption of our routines during the coronavirus pandemic have taken their toll on many of us, leading to an increase in related health problems ranging from weight gain to back pain.
We talked with three Rush experts about what they’re seeing and the advice they’re sharing for staying healthy.
Even before the pandemic, family physician and obesity medicine specialist Naomi Parrella, MD, noticed an increase in patients seeking help for weight-related health issues. The reasons, she suggests, include social media, awareness of the link to chronic health conditions, concern for quality of life, and the emergence of multiple treatment options.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also greatly altered most people’s work, exercise and eating lifestyles. Parrella says that her patients have experienced a range of changes during the pandemic.
“Some of my patients have said the pandemic helped them to commit and has helped set them up for success, since they had more time for sleep and exercise,” she says. “Other patients say that working from home has sabotaged their previous efforts, as they have easier access to food and may have turned to food as a comfort.”
The pandemic also caused many people to delay seeing a primary care physician, Parrella says.
“Often, changes in blood pressure, weight, blood sugar and other blood labs may not be noticed until you see your doctor,” she says. “These changes may signal better or worse health trajectories and are important to be aware of. Without awareness, individuals can get behind on their health.”
And long-term weight management can be complicated. People whose weight loss was derailed by habits started during the pandemic may feel unmotivated and not sure how to start back up again.
But Parrella says it’s not too late to make changes. “Wherever you are starting from now, you can move in a better direction. Connect or reconnect with your health care team. At any point, you can take actions to reduce your health risks and promote health for your body.”
2. Heart Conditions
Rush cardiologist Daniel Luger, MD, also has noticed an increase in sedentary behavior and weight gain among his patients.
Now that more people are getting vaccinated and it’s well understood that transmission risk while outside is low, many patients may begin to get back to normal. But habits started during the pandemic may not be easy to break. And psychological problems like depression and anxiety that started during the pandemic may be continuing, especially with the recent increase in cases.
Stress is also a major cardiovascular risk factor that is under-addressed, Luger says.
“Stress has direct physiologic consequences for the cardiovascular system,” Luger says. “Especially with the pandemic limiting our social interactions, stress can be compounded which, combined with sedentary behavior and unhealthy eating, can increase risks of cardiovascular health problems.”
From his perspective, “the cardiac manifestations of these behavior changes won’t be seen for 10 to 15 years.”
Luger wants patients to know that if they have been more sedentary, now is a great time to be exercising again. “it’s well-known that patients with diabetes and obesity do have worse outcomes with COVID-19,” he says.
If you’re at risk for cardiovascular health problems or concerned you might be, he says, you can see a cardiologist now and start proactively taking care of your health.
3. Back and neck pain
Back and neck pain are also on the rise after so many people switched to working from home.
Hong Wu, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Rush Oak Brook, said she has never seen so many younger patients seeking treatment for back and neck pain. Lifestyle changes caused many people to be more sedentary and sit at home, and work-from-home settings often are not as ideal as normal working environments.
“When I talk to patients about back and neck pain, I recommend improving the ergonomics of their workspace if they work from home,” Wu says. “I give them tips on posture and educate them about how best to sit and position themselves to support their neck and keep their bodies in an ideal position.”
Wu says her strategies for treating patients also have changed. Due to the pandemic, she’s done many consultations via telephone and telemedicine. At the beginning of the pandemic, most interventional pain management (meaning active pain management through injections and other medical treatments) was put on hold, so Wu found herself prescribing alternatives such as medications, home therapy and exercise.
Wu also offers advice to help make your at-home environment more ergonomic and better for you:
- Do exercises at home to stretch out your body. You can do exercises without equipment that are still effective.
- Stretch every day, including your spine.
- Strengthen your core muscles. Ensuring strong abdominal, pelvic and back muscles can help prevent back pain and other problems.
- Be aware of your posture, and when you sit, have something on your chair to support your back.
- Always try to keep your knees at the same level as your hips. One way to do this is by keeping a box or cushion underneath your desk that you can put your feet on.
- When using a computer, have something to support your wrists and keep them in a neutral position.
- Make sure your eyes are at the same level as your computer and that you’re not looking up or down.