Working Despite Chronic Pain
Chronic pain can limit your activities during school, in the workplace, and around the home. It saps your energy, happiness and causes problems with concentration, in addition to the physical limitations.
In 2003, a multi-national review and study estimated that between 10% and 55% of the world's population suffered from chronic pain.
Pain management specialists and clinics encourage patients to work or study, to seek social contact and support groups, exercise, develop routines, maintain hobbies and interests, and to make other lifestyle modifications.
These doctors have found that when pain patients do these things, they have a much higher quality of life and reduced pain level.
DIsclaimer: I am not a medical professional, but I do have over 20 years of first hand experience in dealing with chronic pain (of many different kinds). I had chronic pain throughout high school, university and then into the workplace, often pushing myself too far.
I have gradually (and stubbornly) learned how to better manage my pain at work and in my further studies. I currently write and study languages during the day and teach adult English classes some afternoons, in addition to having too many other hobbies. I use most of the tips below to stay productive at work and at home, and enjoy life, despite the pain.
If you do experience pain, please see a doctor to be tested and diagnosed.
Why work is important for chronic pain patients
Working and studying is important, especially for those in chronic pain, because:
- It helps chronic pain patients maintain self-esteem and provides a sense of purpose in life. When you work towards something, and complete projects, even if they are small, your self-confidence gets a boost and your outlook is generally more positive.
- It is a distraction from the pain. Turning your mind from dwelling on pain to concentrate on something else can stop it feeling like your body and life is filled only with pain. This helps to prevent depression.
- It provides social contact in a 'safe' setting. Chronic pain can cause isolation in two ways - it takes effort to socialize when in pain, so sufferers withdraw. Some chronic pain patients complain constantly about their health, and push people away. Having a 'safe' topic (work or school) is a good way to avoid both of these issues.
- It gives sufferers a routine, which in turn can help them see that they can (and do) complete things, even when their bodies and minds are dealing with pain.
Managing chronic pain in the workplace
Follow these steps, and learn how to reduce and better manage your chronic pain while working or studying.
1. Learn your limits
Many chronic pain sufferers are over-achievers, doers, go-getters, who are angry and upset when they simply can't do what they want to get done. They push against their limits, causing more pain and injury in the process.
It is really important to realize that everyone has limits, and those limits are different in all cases. When chronic pain patients can accept and work within their limits, they become less angry and often less depressed, as well as more productive at work and school.
Keep track of your pain levels - note in a pain diary what activities and positions cause pain, and what relieves your pain.
For example: my hand and wrist pain (from fibromyalgia) is made infinitely worse if I type for 4-5 hours without taking a break (easy to do as a writer, when you get into flow!)
To reduce my pain levels, I need to take 10-15 minute breaks each hour, and stretch my neck, shoulders, chest and arms regularly. Occasionally I use speech-to-text conversion software, and wouldn't dream of using a normal keyboard!
After keeping track or your pain levels and activities for a while, you'll learn:
- how many hours per day you can comfortably work.
- how often you need a break, and how long those breaks need to be.
- what activities are high pain, and which you can do without any problems.
- what positions cause pain (sitting / standing / hand-writing / typing / writing on a blackboard).
- what stretches and exercises are useful to reduce or minimize pain.
2. Become organized
Now that you know your limits, you can organize your work and study life to fit within those limits.
Try the following organization and productivity tips:
- Design and maintain a schedule. Don't pack too much in - incorporate regular breaks and room to maneuver for high-pain days.
Learn to pace yourself, and not push yourself past your limits.
- Keep everything in its place and put things away after using them. Being able to find things with a minimum of thinking at work or home when studying is important for chronic pain sufferers - pain interferes with thinking!
- Minimize distractions and disruptions. Many people trouble with task switching - multi-tasking is not productive for the majority of the population.
It takes a certain time to switch your concentration from one task to another, and it takes longer for a mind addled by pain to make the switch.
- Don't procrastinate. Start projects and assignments as soon as you get them, and keep working on them regularly. Don't leave things until the last minute - that's a recipe for increased pain.
(This is something I still struggle tremendously with).
- Set realistic goals. Goals are great for motivation and increase productivity, but keep in mind your limits and schedule when setting them.
- Plan everything. Outlines, timelines for projects or assignment work, meeting agendas, etc. Small planned steps help you complete, especially when struggling with chronic pain.
Chronic pain poll
What is the longest amount of time that you have suffered pain that interfered with your life?
- Create routines and checklists for regular tasks. Having a routine or checklist that is always followed when doing a repetitive task is easier.
For example: when taking notes in a meeting or lecture, always write the date, class and presenter's name - makes it easier when revising notes or preparing project reports later on.
I try to do this for phone calls as well as meetings - sending a quick email to the caller or meeting members to note the important things discussed ('for the record').
Working within my limits
On the days that I teach in a classroom setting, I should not take a long walk or stand in the kitchen for a marathon cooking session or clean beforehand.
My feet need to be able to cope with standing for 2-4 hours, something they have trouble with if I've used them a lot earlier in the day.
I've also found I am unable to teach of an evening - then I don't sleep, and pain levels are extreme.
3. Look for modifications
Look for ways to modify your work place, work and study routines, that will decrease pain and increase productivity.
There are many more possible modifications - think creatively, try different things, and find a combination that works for you!
Work / study modifications
ergonomic desk, keyboard and mouse
work or study time-shifted hours (flex time) to minimize distractions
speech-input software or screen-reading software
voice recorders for taking notes or recording meetings
downshift to part time work or part time study
kneeling chair or a balance ball instead of an office chair
reduce or change the responsibilities and tasks of your job position
standing or adjustable height desk
take extended breaks (and work an extended work day)
telephone headset instead of using your hands
arrange for additional days of leave
ebook reader instead of carrying a pile of heavy textbooks
organize a longer time to write exams or assignments
pen and pencil silicon grips
listen to or watch recorded lectures
wrist and feet rests and supportive braces
share note-taking with a colleague or co-student
4. Look for other areas to improve
Don't forget to make changes outside the workplace and school as well.
Make your health and pain management your priority - a healthy diet, moderate exercise, social contact, trying a variety of treatments (available treatments do change over time), in addition to work and study.
All of these can have a huge positive impact on your pain levels and outlook on life.
Your obligations as an employee
Explaining your condition
You don't have a legal obligation to tell any prospective employer about your condition when applying for a position.
Taking medical leave
When you want to take medical leave, you will need to explain the reasons to your employer.
In America, the Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year (providing some criteria are met). This can be taken at one time, or in small chunks. Outside America, contact your government to see if there is a similar act in your country.
Making changes to your job responsibilities or workplace
If you need to make changes to your workplace or responsibilities, check to see what is covered by your country's or state's Disabilities Act, although small companies may be exempt.
Many countries have laws that require employers to make reasonable changes, when asked to, for employees with disabilities that interfere with their essential job tasks.
If you don't need any changes made in order to perform your job, then there is no need to ask for accommodation or tell your supervisor.
- How Prevalent Is Chronic Pain? C. Harstall C & M. Ospina, Pain Clinical Updates, International Association for the Study of Pain, June 2003, XI(2):1-4.
- PubMed search for "chronic pain management", performed July 2012
Tell us your story
How do you cope with pain at work or school?
What modifications have your made (or will you make) to reduce your pain?
How does your employer help? Or do you have a story of an employer who refused to help?
Let us know in the comments below!