13 Ways to Cope With Pain at Work
How to cope with pain
More than 116 million Americans deal with chronic pain each year. And that pain doesn’t go away when people have to go to work.
“The number of people with chronic pain is outrageous,” says Scott Bautch, MD, CEO for Allied Health Chiropractic Centers located in Wisconsin. “We need to make jobs friendly for them, but they need to know how to adjust in the jobs they have.”
It can be difficult to cope with chronic pain on the job, but not impossible. Here are some ways to get your employer to be more accommodating, as well as tips for managing pain at work.
Follow the 30% rule
Most people who have a chronic pain condition like rheumatoid arthritis experience a reduced grip strength and mobility, says Dr. Bautch.
If this is true for you, try to use no more than about 30% of your grip strength and muscle energy in your elbows, wrists, shoulders, and other parts of your body, he says. Also aim to stay in the middle 30% of your range of motion.
“These are the ranges that are friendly to people with pain,” he says. “And if the amount of use goes up with too much frequency, they will struggle.”
Change positions often
Sitting or standing in one position for too long can exacerbate pain. “People with chronic pain have a low tolerance for inactivity,” Dr. Bautch says. “You need regular motion, so you can’t not move.”
Certain jobs, such as a trial lawyer or court stenographer, may not be the best choice. It may be just too painful to be confined to a chair for long periods of time.
If you work at a desk, get up and move around every 15 minutes or so, says Dr. Bautch. And don’t feel guilty about it—studies show break-takers are as productive—sometimes more—as people who don’t take them.
Amy Beamer, a 38-year-old from Tampa Fla., worked as an accountant in a high-pressure, high-level position that required her to travel all over the world. Beamer, who has had rheumatoid arthritis for a decade, could handle the work until her condition became more aggressive a couple of years ago.
But she didn’t have to quit her job; she cut back to four days a week and no longer travels. As long as she keeps to that schedule, her health is much better.
“You don’t have to stop working, but sometimes you just can’t do the things you used to do,” she says. “I always say, ‘If my body could keep up with my mind, it would be a force to be reckoned with’.”
Educate your employer
Ashley Boynes Shuck worked for the one employer who could understand her condition more than anyone—the Arthritis Foundation.
Boynes Shuck has RA, as did her former manager’s child. But when a new supervisor took over, she wasn’t as accommodating or understanding about her condition, even though she worked for the foundation, Boynes Shuck says.
“I had to work with her,” she says. “You need to have a dialogue about your condition—what it entails and what your limitations and abilities are. But make sure they know you are an asset in the company; you can’t do certain things, but you can make up in other areas.”
There are a handful of reasons why people with chronic pain should not be world travelers. For many people with chronic pain, a change in pressure, which is a given on a plane, can be a symptom trigger.
What’s more, it’s difficult to get up and move around to avoid stiffness, particularly on long flights. On top of this, anti-TNF medications, used to decrease inflammation, also suppress the immune system. On a plane, you are exposed to more germs. The last few times Beamer traveled for her job, she was sick for weeks afterward.
“Somebody gets sick and coughs on you and you get sick,” she says. “I always got a cold when I traveled and the last time I flew, I ended up with an ear infection.”
Be prepared for a flare
If you work full time, then you spend nearly as much time awake at your office as you do at home. Treat your workplace like your home—make yourself comfortable and be prepared for flare-ups.
If temperature affects you, keep a sweater or jacket on hand for meetings in over-air conditioned conference rooms. Keep a heating pad and ice pack nearby, if those are helpful, and have medication on hand in case of emergency.
To most people, a white-collar job does not seem very physically demanding. But for someone living with chronic pain, the mere task of typing can, over time, cause extreme pain.
This goes with any occupation that requires repetition. Typing for long periods or doing the same motion on an assembly line can cause stiffness and flare-ups.
If you are going to live with a job that necessitates repetitive motion, you will have to be able to get away from the task frequently, at least four to five minutes an hour.
Get savvy about ergonomics
What is ergonomics? The use of specially designed equipment to ease or prevent pain or other health problems. Depending on your job, that could include finding the right keyboard, computer, desk chair, or just about anything else you come into contact with at work.
“Typing is much more friendly to people when the keys were slanted,” says Dr. Bautch.
Make sure your work space is comfortable for you; have an ergonomic chair, wrist cushions, and use dictation software if you have difficulty typing.
Stick to a routine
Almost all chronic illnesses are better managed when you can stay on a routine. Getting enough sleep, eating well, taking medications and making time for exercise are all critical to staying healthy. Jennie Spring, a 62-year-old from St. Clair Shores, Mich., found that her RA would flare when her work schedule was erratic. Spring worked for years in labor relations for General Motors Co. and had to hold meetings for each of the shifts of workers.
“Some meetings might start at 11 p.m. and it was a challenge when standing up for hours on end talking to people and not getting seven to eight hours of sleep,” she said. “One of the important things I learned about RA is that you need to have rest and focus on trying to eat properly and regularly.”
Pick the right shoes
Spring gave up wearing heels years ago. She couldn't run through an airport in them, and they exacerbated the pain in her knees. But finding the right shoes required even more trial and error.
Even her tennis shoes weren’t helping when she spent four days on her feet in an exhibit hall. (She attends events where she sells goods to raise funds for various health-related causes).
“I started out in tennis shoes and my legs and knees were really aching,” she says. “Eventually, I wore Crocs and they were a heck of a lot better than tennis shoes. It had to do with the cement floor. It took me years to figure it out, but I did. It is all part of a learning process.”
Adjust your work
Some jobs like retail or food service—which would normally be difficult for someone with chronic pain—may work for you if you have some control over your tasks. Dr. Bautch recommends trading tasks with others.
You might be able to wait tables if you can get off of your feet now and again and have others carry heavy plates to the tables. In a nursing home, you may be able to work in management or in a patient care setting if you have others who can lift or move people as needed.
“You might be able to mix and match jobs if you can find employers who are friendly with that,” Dr. Bautch says.
Ask for what you need
“When I talk with most employers, most are really receptive to the idea of helping an employee if they ask for the things they need,” Dr. Bautch says.
People with chronic pain should tell employers what they need to do their job. And if you have a problem getting it, there are organizations that will advocate for your rights.
Most states have groups whose purpose it is to help people with disabilities get their needs met in the workplace. For information on finding local assistance, you can call the information line at the Department of Justice, which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act at (800) 514-0301 or go to the
Because of her health challenges, Boynes Shuck didn’t end up working in the field she imagined for herself.
“I had started grad school, but realized I couldn’t teach because of the schedule and the inability to miss work for doctor’s appointments and sickness,” she says. “I had always envisioned being a teacher or a writer.”
Instead, Boynes Shuck does social media and public relations work for the
Arthritis Foundation. She is still able to educate people through her work and is satisfied with what she does.
“What I believe is that your journey may look a little different than you had planned,” she says. “You can still do something you are passionate about, you just have to be flexible and make adaptations. Adapt, stay open-minded, and find a way.”