Approximately 116 million Americans are dealing with chronic pain, more than those affected by diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer combined. And while debilitating, persisting pain plagues everyone from little children to older adults, it also places a great burden on our economy: more than $635 billion is the total annual incremental cost of health care due to chronic pain.
Chronic pain can rarely be ignored: 51 percent of the Americans who responded to an American Pain Foundation survey said they felt they had little or no control over their symptoms, while 6 out of 10 patients said they experienced debilitating pain for several times a day. Almost two-thirds reported a change in their lifestyle, losing their enjoyment of life, becoming depressed and less energetic, and having a hard time concentrating or falling asleep at night.
And as if dealing with excruciating pain at home wasn’t enough, most sufferers have no other choice but bring their headaches, migraines, arthritis, neck and low back pain with them to work. And that’s a lose-lose situation, because while they battle with persisting, agonizing pain in order to avoid taking a sick day, their overall work performance is lower, and they can rarely fulfill all their work tasks:
• 52.7% of all workforce reported dealing with some form of chronic pain, while 12.7% reported lost productive time in a two-week period due to chronic pain
• Workers who suffered from a pain condition lost 4.6 hours per week of productive time
• Headaches, back pain, arthritis, and other musculoskeletal pain were the most common conditions reported by workers
• Musculoskeletal pain (5.5 hours/week) and arthritis and back pain (5.2 hours/week) accounted for the highest losses of productive time
A Vicious Cycle: How Pain Generates More Pain
There’s no question about it: Dealing with chronic pain presents tremendous challenges for individuals who are also in the process of building themselves professionally and maintaining a successful career. Not only it exposes the sufferer to debilitating, life-altering pain for years and years, but it also causes the employee to miss a significant number of work days per year and fail to fulfill professional duties. In fact, nearly half of the respondents to a survey said they had their job responsibilities reduced, and with them, their annual income, as a result of their pain. Some of them are even let go because they can no longer handle work duties in an appropriate manner, their pain making it impossible to maintain the same level of productivity as a healthy employee.
But more than that, chronic pain generates more pain. It is not uncommon for chronic pain sufferers to be isolated by their co-workers and ostracized by their superiors, and many times, that’s understandable, because the pain is invisible, and few can make the effort to understand what it’s like to always be in pain. After seeing how one of their colleagues barely stands up from their desk all day long or takes every opportunity to leave work a few minutes earlier, employees may change their attitude or even report him/her for slacking. Feeling stigmatized and isolated by their co-workers, some chronic pain sufferers will soon become depressed, anxious, withdrawn, sometimes developing severe mental health problems that last for years and years.
How to Deal with Chronic Pain in the Office
As debilitating as living and working with chronic pain may be, it is not impossible to cope with pain in the office. Coming forward and speaking openly to co-workers about your condition should be the priority, followed by these simple, yet highly effective tips:
Alternate positions. Although you may be inclined to think that sitting still will alleviate your symptoms, by not moving for prolonged periods you put your body into a state of “deconditioning,” causing the muscles to atrophy and increasing the likelihood of falls. If your office provides it, try conducting your work from an adjustable workstation or a standing desk, or at least alternate between sitting and standing often.
Stress less. It’s fairly easy to get stressed when having so much to deal with, but increased levels of cortisol will only exacerbate the pain in your joints, neck, or lower back. The explanation is simple: the brain does its best to inhibit pain signals, but while we’re stressed, the brain’s ability of filtering these signals decreases, and we end up in even more pain. Try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, listening to soothing music, or simply taking a break.
Take precautions. If you suffer from chronic pain, you probably are already accustomed with flare-ups, so make sure you keep all necessaries on hand for when the pain strikes. Take an extra sweater to work if sometime during the day you’ll get cold, or keep a heating pad nearby in case your joints get stiff. Always have medication on you for more intense episodes.
Ergonomics, ergonomics, ergonomics. The benefits of well-designed furniture cannot be stressed enough, especially when every movement causes excruciating pain. Traditional workstations and office chairs are not designed with body mechanics in mind and may cause a wide variety of musculoskeletal disorders in the long run, not to mention bringing no alleviation to your already debilitating pain.
Massage your way to health. We already knew deep-tissue massages release the stress and tension from our aching muscles and make us feel better, but now there’s scientific proof, as well. Participants in a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine who were given a one-hour massage for a week reported a lower disability score and fewer flare-ups. Massage therapy provided by a licensed chiropractor can improve joint mobility, increase blood flow, reduce muscle tension, improve the immune system, and reduce or eliminate pain.
For sufferers of chronic pain who also have their careers to consider, consistency is key. Staying focused on decreasing the number of stressors in the office, switching to ergonomic furniture solutions, and making regular appointments for massage therapy is the only effective way to keep debilitating pain at bay.
About the Author:
Dr. Marc Browner practices at Windmill Health Center in Weston, Florida. A graduate of the University of Florida, he earned his Doctor of Chiropractic degree in 1995. In private practice since 1998, Dr. Browner is a member of the Florida Chiropractic Society, the Florida Chiropractic Association, and he attends continuing education seminars, classes, and workshops to remain abreast of the most current treatment methods and technological advances in the field.