Overcoming Pain

Why people experience chronic pain, and the power they have to de-intensify it

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Working With Chronic Pain

I was looking for a job and then I found a job. Heaven knows, I'm miserable now.

Going to work when you have a chronic pain-causing condition is an achievement in and of itself, made worse with certain types of work. And even if you do make a promise to yourself to reliably show up to that difficult job, research has shown that people with certain chronic pain conditions are more likely to change jobs, be fired, or retire early compared to people without the condition.

If you have chronic pain and are in the workforce, you should make every attempt to settle into an occupation that isn't too physically demanding and allows you to work at your own pace. Research into these issues has been performed, and the results have allowed for a rough approximation of the good, the bad, and the ugly in the job market:

THE GOOD

While at first glance it would appear that sitting at a desk all day is not ideal for someone with painful joints, working as an administrative assistant does have its benefits. In general, the only repetitive physical task is typing. And these positions often have some flexibility, enabling one to move around when needed—and to and take breaks as necessary.

In 2012, researchers out of the University of Georgia found that administrative assistants and office staff in general had the fewest reported injuries of the various occupations they studied. Nonetheless, overuse injuries from typing, back pain from sitting, and weight gain from an inactive lifestyle are the ghosts in the coffee machine.

THE BAD

Nine-to-fivers may not face the immediate dangers of, say, a fireman, but the published literature appears to conclude that the sedentary, indoor lifestyle of office workers is still among the top threats to long-term health and wellness.

Sitting all day has been linked to back pain, repetitive stress injuries, obesity, an increased risk of heart disease, and a shorter lifespan; and it seems that even those who exercise before or after work are not exempt from having these medical problems visited upon them.

You may be able to prevent some of these nasty outcomes by taking frequent breaks during the day and getting outside for a walk that raises your heart rate and gets the blood flowing. But this is easier said than done if you are a chronic pain patient.

THE UGLY

Alas, those whose jobs involve maintaining our health often are subject to a medical fate worse than that which they are currently treating. Shift workers, such as nurses and emergency department doctors, face threats including sleep disorders, elevated stress hormones, and increased risks of diabetes and heart disease. And the sleep deprivation often makes chronic pain (think fibromyalgia as one example) conditions worse.

In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Nursing Administration, about 55 percent of nurses surveyed were obese. Not surprisingly, those who worked long hours, and those whose jobs required less physical activity, were at greatest risk.

Sustaining injury while trying to heal it—now that’s ugly.

The chronic pain of employment, via the words of Morrissey and Marr:

“I was looking for a job and then I found a job

And Heaven knows, I'm miserable now”

Mark Borigini, M.D., is a board-certified rheumatologist who has devoted his career to treating illnesses that cause chronic pain and disability.

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