The Smart Patient's Guide to
Managing Pain in the Workplace

How to Manage Pain in the Workplace

An Introduction

Chronic pain affects around 100 million Americans, and some 25 million people have moderate to severe chronic pain that results in significant pain-related activity limitations. The societal cost of this pain, as a result of missed workdays and medical expenses, runs between $560 and $630 billion each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.1

Millions of people who work must cope with chronic pain. In fact, it’s estimated that 13 percent of the total workforce had a loss in productive time during a two-week period due to a common pain condition, according to the American Chronic Pain Association. Pain costs an annual $294 billion in lost workdays, medical expenses, and other benefit costs.2

If you work and you suffer from chronic pain, you know how challenging life can be. It’s hard enough just working and keeping up with all of life’s other demands, but add to that a painful condition, and a job becomes even more stressful. If you’re in this position, we hope that this Smart Patient’s Guide to Managing Pain in the Workplace will help you manage your workday with a little more ease and lot less stress and pain.

Throughout this new resource series, you will find helpful advice, coping tips and techniques, and strategies to streamline your workday and keep you comfortable. From articles on how to maintain good posture and select ergonomic desks, to recommendations for getting through a typical work day (eg, there are several pain-relief exercises you can in your office), to realistic modifications you can make to your career, this guide aims to help you to maintain -  and  enjoy - your work life.


“Work is a really integral part of most people’s self-identity and self-worth, so when work is affected by chronic pain, then your self-worth is affected, too,” says Nancy Elder, MD, a family medicine physician with a pain management background in the department of family and community medicine at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

The best outcome for chronic pain, she says, is when the management is multimodal—in other words, when you are tackling the pain on various fronts, perhaps taking a medication but also working with a physical therapist, seeing a counselor, learning relaxation techniques, or doing yoga.

This approach is true in the workplace as well, adds Elder. “A person in the workforce who looks at their pain in a multimodal way will be realistic about what they can and can’t do at work. If they can’t sit for more than 30 minutes without pain and stiffness, they will ask for a three-minute break to walk around every half hour. They will say, ‘I can’t lift objects above my head, but I can lift them up to here.’”

Be realistic, be matter of fact, and realize that you do have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Elder says. Work with your healthcare provider and be specific about what you need from your employer in order to do your job right. When you are on the job, be a good employee. “Do well at the things you can do,” she says. “Be clear on what’s expected of you. If you have a flare-up, renegotiate a deadline rather than just not getting the job done. Be the kind of employee who, when you can work, you do your job and do it successfully.”

When individuals who have chronic pain find it difficult to hold down a fulltime job, they need to have a discussion with their healthcare provider to assess what they can and cannot do, says Kiran V. Patel, MD, an anesthesiologist and director of neurosurgical pain at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Consulting with a physiatrist or pain physician may be necessary to fully assess limitations, and whether accommodations at the workplace can help mitigate your painful symptoms,” she says.

If you find that you need to make a career switch, or tweak your work life, because it is difficult to handle all the responsibilities of your current job, check out this guide for proven strategies used by individuals just like you.

At the end of the day, or in this case, workday, there are ways to manage pain in the workplace. 


Updated on: 06/06/19
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