What Happens to Your Body After a Year Inside?
Pandemic-induced isolation has led to a wide range of physical effects. Here’s what to watch out for—and how to address it.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
After over a year of the pandemic, it’s no surprise that many of us are in a mental state of languishing. But not only our minds have been affected—the many months we’ve spent cooped up indoors have also had an undeniable impact on our bodies. (As anyone who has been working from their closet or kitchen table can attest.) We spoke to several doctors about the aches, pains, and irritations that our bodies have developed during this period of isolation. If you’re hurting and hobbling as you re-emerge into society, you’re not alone. Here’s a survey of the damage, along with some potential remedies.
Broken Toes and Aching Feet
For many of us, more time at home meant more time spent barefoot or wearing only socks. And the longer that our little piggies are exposed, the greater the odds of a painful crash into furniture. “By far, the one thing that has really skyrocketed at foot and ankle clinics in terms of numbers is toe injuries,” says Ettore Vulcano, an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon at Mount Sinai in New York. (He also saw many people with “COVID toes,” the painful, inflamed digits that occasionally accompanied COVID infections.)
Foot and ankle surgeons also reported an increase in plantar fasciitis—inflammation around the base of heel—and achilles tendonitis. Both of these can be brought on by tromping barefoot on hard surfaces or by being sedentary for long periods of time. Even brief daily exercise can go a long way in avoiding these aches. “Leaving the home for a half hour walk is extremely important,” Vulcano says.
And if you’ve been padding around barefoot, it may be time to invest in some cushy house slippers. They could even prevent a trip to the emergency room: Vulcano says that foot tendon lacerations also increased during the pandemic—the result of dropping kitchen knives during our quarantine cooking adventures.
Breakouts and Hair Loss
Masks have helped significantly to slow the spread of the virus, but they’re not always friendly on our skin. Mount Sinai dermatologist Shoshana Marmon says there’s been a rise in lower face breakouts, or what’s been dubbed “maskne.” Plus, constant hand washing and sanitizing have led to an increase in eczema flare ups.
The pandemic also brought a spike in hair shedding, because the body sometimes responds to stress by shunting resources away from our scalps, explains Marmon.
Communities hit hardest by the pandemic have seen bigger surges in hair loss. In a study of two hospitals in New York City serving low-income, racially diverse communities that experienced especially high mortality rates from the virus, patient reports of hair loss increased more than 400 percent over pre-pandemic levels. “Seeing loved ones get sick, losing jobs… there are multiple ways you can develop this type of hair loss,” says Marmon, who is also a senior author of the study.
Hair loss generally occurs two to four months after a stressful event. Fortunately, per Marmon, it almost always reverses in six months.
Neck, Back, and Shoulder Strain
When the pandemic hit, those of us who were able to work from home had to quickly cobble together work stations. The result was often less than ideal. “I can’t remember how many times I talked to people who were working in a closet,” says Mark Benden, an ergonomics expert with Texas A&M University. On top of that, stress can lead to physical tension in the body, intensifying the strain, says Benden. “It may not just be that your monitor is too high or your keyboard is improperly positioned or you’re using the wrong mouse, it might be that you’re having all this other stress manifesting itself physically in our neck, shoulders, and arms.”
We also moved less, in part due to the short commute from bed to couch. Accordingly, complaints of neck and shoulder pain have risen across the past year, says Benden. But this isn’t only due to our desktops. Many of us now spend four to six hours a day staring down at our smartphones—a position that also leads to pain.
There isn’t an ideal body position for computer work, says Benden. Sure, adjustments like moving your monitor so it’s at eye level can help. But the key is avoiding holding still for too long. Benden suggests the “20, 8, and 2” rule—20 minutes of sitting, broken up with eight minutes of standing and two of walking. “Building in that variety and change is really important,” says Benden.
Worn and Chipped Teeth
When Tricia Quartey-Sagaille’s dental practice opened back up after New York’s lockdown, she noticed an alarming trend: almost daily, she’d see patients with jaw pain or chipped teeth caused by clenching or grinding, up from only about one such patient a month before the pandemic.
Many people channel prolonged stress into teeth clenching and grinding at night. According to an American Dental Association survey published in March, dentists saw increases of more than 60 percent in clenching and grinding, cracked or chipped teeth, and jaw pain compared to pre-pandemic stats.
Quartey-Sagaille says those problems have yet to subside at her practice. “The most common stress is childcare,” she says of her patients. “Being at home all day long with the kids … that still has not gone away for a lot of people.”
And even if you aren’t waking up with your mouth locked or your jaw aching, you may be unknowingly grinding away, says Quartey-Sagaille. The only way to be sure is with a dental exam, where your dentist may recommend a night guard.
In a survey by the American Optometric Association, 83 percent of eye doctors said they noticed an increase in vision problems related to screen time during the pandemic. Our sanitizing regimens also hurt our eyes; in the same survey, doctors reported an increase in chemical burns from cleaning products. Dry eyes, headaches, and eye strain all increased during the last year. Some eye issues ease when we give our peepers a break, but other times the solution is simply a stronger prescription.
To prevent the need for ever-thicker lenses, optometrists promote the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes working at a computer, stare at a point 20 feet away for 20 seconds. And don’t forget to blink.
A Distorted View of Ourselves
Hours of staring at ourselves during Zoom meetings have only given us more time to scrutinize our faces for imperfections. Front-facing computer cameras can also distort facial features in unflattering ways, leading to what dermatologists have dubbed “Zoom dysphoria,” a preoccupation with perceived defects in appearance, exacerbated by the surge in video calls.
In a study published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, more than half of the dermatologists surveyed saw an increase in cosmetic consultations during the pandemic. Of those, 86 percent said that patients reported seeing themselves in video conferencing as a reason for their visit. Especially when we sit close to a camera, it tends to stretch parts of our face and squish others based on their relative distance to the lens, so many people in video calls were staring at skewed renderings of their faces. “People were forced to not only look in the mirror, but actually what I refer to as a circus mirror,” says Shadi Kourosh, a dermatologist with Harvard Medical School and senior author of the study. She thinks many of those who consulted cosmetic surgeons may not even realize that their computer camera causes such distortions, giving them a false idea of how they actually look. Increased time on social media worsened the situation, Kourosh says. After looking at our distorted face for hours, we’d then turn to our phones and compare ourselves to highly edited images on Instagram.
An improved camera and lighting can help. But even better: spend less time scrolling, manage stress, get some sunshine, and move your body. For many of the lingering physical effects of the pandemic, that’s the common prescription.