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

Strategies to Stay Ahead of Your Workday

Even when you suffer from chronic pain, there are techniques you can use to get through a day at the office.

If chronic pain tends to disrupt your work day, don’t resign yourself to an endless round of aches and discomfort just yet. Pain management experts say there are many things you can do to power through a day at the office. While you may not be able to completely get rid of your pain, the following techniques may help you effectively manage your responsibilities, feel more productive, and maintain a positive outlook.

Before You Even Get to the Office

Try to get a good night’s sleep before a workday, advises Siu Fung (Will) Chan, MD, assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the University of Cincinnati. To ensure that you sleep well, avoid eating within three hours of bedtime (to prevent indigestion), avoid drinking too many liquids (to cut down on middle of the night bathroom trips), keep the TV off in your bedroom, and plan a pre-bedtime routine that may include reading, meditating, or listening to soothing music, as these will calm the body and mind, Chan explains.

Maximize Your Medication’s Effectiveness
Take note of when you feel your achiest, and then take your pain reliever just before that time period. For instance, if you tend to feel stiffness and pain in the morning, you may want to take your acetaminophen before getting to the office, says Gerald M. Aronoff, MD, medical director of Carolina Pain Associates in North Carolina, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, and author of Medication Management of Chronic Pain: What You Need to Know.  “This is easy, and something you can do for yourself,” Aronoff says.

At Work

Check Your Surroundings

Make sure your work area is set up correctly, advises Michael Perry, MD, co-founder and chief medical director of the Laser Spine Institute. “An improperly aligned office space can lead to significant aches and pains. And even if your company won’t pay for ergonomic upgrades, there are ways to create a more comfortable workspace.”

For instance, you can add lumbar support to your desk chair by just rolling up a small blanket or towel and place it behind you. Next, check the position of your computer monitor. “Reduce strain on your eyes, neck and back by making sure the top of the screen is level with your eyes,” Perry says. “Your monitor should be as far away from you as possible without straining your eyesight.” If you notice you are straining to see the screen, increase the font size, he advises.

Perfect your Posture

Sitting with your spine perpendicular to the ground is not recommended, Perry says. “I suggest a slightly reclined posture of 100 to 110 degrees rather than a perfect 90-degree position,” he says. “The slight recline reduces the risk for tension to build up in your neck and back.” (More on maintaining good posture throughout the day.)


These two stretches, recommended by Perry, can be done comfortably from behind your desk.

  • For a simple twist, sit in your chair, keep your feet flat on the ground, about shoulder-width apart. Keep your legs and hips stationary and turn just your upper body toward the left. Put your right hand on your left knee and, if it is comfortable, extend the twist by looking behind you, over your left shoulder. Hold this pose for two breaths. Exhale, and release. Repeat the twist on the other side.
  • For a chest opener, stand up and clasp your hands behind you. “Interlock your fingers, raise your arms, and pull your shoulders back until you feel tightness in your chest,” Perry says. “Hold for a deep breath and release.”
  • Try chair yoga.

Take a Break
Every 10 minutes, take a 30-second “micro-break,” Perry says. Get up from your desk and move around. Every two hours, if possible, take a 15-minute break from sitting. “Get up and do a lap around the office, even if it’s just to go to the restroom or break room.”

Breathe Deep and Visualize

When you are feeling pain, practice deep abdominal breathing, says Robert Glatter, MD, emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “This helps reduce pain and anxiety. The very act of deep breathing helps to slow your heart rate, allowing you to alleviate pain.” Also, visualize a peaceful or serene environment. “This can be quite helpful to help reduce any pain or even to reduce stress,” he says.

Play Some Tunes
If you work at a job where you can stream music via a smartphone or tablet, do so. “Listening to your favorite music can help to significantly reduce pain and it can mean the difference between a difficult day and a tolerable day,” Glatter explains. “Music helps to activate areas of the brain that are pleasure centers, releasing dopamine and serotonin.”

Ask for Help When You Need It

If you have a joint condition such as osteoarthritis, back pain, or hip pain, you may feel your worst in the morning, Aronoff says. “If you do lifting at work and the busiest time is in the morning, you may need to ask for additional assistance from other workers,” he says. “You could offer to do tasks at another time of day, when you are not in pain.”


After Hours

Check Your Perspective

The human brain adapts to whatever it is exposed to, says Timothy R. Smith, MD, RPh, vice president of the National Headache Foundation, and doctors call this adaptive process neuroplasticity. “Simply stated, this means your brain becomes what it does,” Smith says. “So if you lie on the couch in pain all the time, your brain becomes a ‘lying on the couch in pain’ brain. In contrast, if you get up and work, you develop and nurture a ‘getting up and working brain.’”


“Focusing on pain makes the perception of pain worse,” Chan says. “Rather than thinking of pain, which can lead to increased muscle tension, meditate. This leads to relaxation of the muscles, which relieves tension and stress, which leads to decreased pain.”

 When Glatter recommends meditation to his patients, he suggests using apps like Headspace or Calm. “The focus on breathing provided by meditation is also another reason for its success,” he explains.

Keep At It

Yes, it’s a challenge to work when you have chronic pain, but for most people, holding down a job is a good thing in the long run, Smith says. “Patients with chronic pain syndromes have much to offer to the workplace,” he says. “And many are very accomplished and talented workers.”


Updated on: 04/29/19
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