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Work, Productivity and Chronic Pain

The relationship between work, productivity and chronic pain is an issue that is drawing increasing attention in the United States. The yearly costs of lowered worker productivity due to pain, ranged from $299 billion to $335 billion in 2010.

Chronic pain can appear after an accident, surgery, or as the result of a chronic disease. Millions of people suffer silently and are affected financially, socially and psychologically by their pain.

A pain specialist can help you with medications and procedures that target your problem, or with advice on how to cope with chronic pain. He or she may refer you to occupational therapy or suggest stress-management techniques to increase your productivity.

Chronic pain and lost productivity

Chronic pain is long-term pain that lasts for more than three to six months. Known causes can be a trauma resulting in an injury such as a herniated disc or an illness such as diabetes. This type of pain can persist long after an injury has apparently healed. It can also start without a known injury or illness and outlast what is considered a normal healing time.

Chronic pain can interfere with your concentration and ability to work. A study from the Department of Health Policy at Johns Hopkins evaluated the impact of pain in the US.

It found that:

  • In 2008, about 100 million adults suffered from chronic pain, including joint pain or arthritis.
  • The yearly costs of pain associated with lower worker productivity due to pain ranged from $299-$335 billion.
  • The yearly cost of pain was greater than the costs of heart disease ($309 billion), cancer ($243 billion), and diabetes ($188 billion).

Types of pain that affect productivity

Any type of pain, if severe enough, can affect productivity. However, a recent study looked at how certain types of pain can interfere with daily activities, more than others. The study was based on interviews with over 500 adults suffering from chronic pain (2).

It found that:

  • Pain at several sites in the body (multisite pain) is more likely to impair daily activities. The painful body sites included a mix of three or more areas such as the head/face/jaw or the neck/back or the abdomen/pelvis/genitals or the arm/leg.
  • Patients with neuropathic pain (a pain condition arising from nerve damage or a disease of the nervous system) also had more trouble with daily activities.
  • One-third of patients with chronic pain suffered from depression as a result of their pain. This could impact their productivity.
  • Most patients made an effort to attend their work, yet had a reduced performance despite trying to be present.
  • The average reported reduction in work productivity was roughly 2.4 hours per week for adults with joint pain. It was roughly 9.8 hours per week for adults with multisite chronic pain.

Is pain affecting your work?

The impact of chronic pain may change your habits and work abilities. It helps to evaluate your situation, to see if chronic pain is interfering with your work.

Things to consider:

  1. How many hours are you able to work each week, even if you attended your regular job?
  2. Do you have trouble concentrating at work?
  3. Does your pain level endanger you or someone else at your job? (bus drivers, nurses, doctors, home health caregivers)
  4. How many sick days have you needed? Additionally, how many times have you needed a sick day but didn’t take it?

Pain in the workplace

Some types of pain, arise as a result of your workplace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, musculoskeletal problems represented up to 33% of all worker injuries and illness cases in 2013.

Musculoskeletal pain affects the muscles, nerves, ligaments, and tendons. Workers in industries that require heavy lifting, reaching overhead, pushing and pulling, are at increased risk. Meatpacking industry workers, assembly line workers, and construction workers are at high risk for musculoskeletal injuries and chronic pain.

However, office jobs also place workers at high risk for musculoskeletal pain. In the office, pain results from working in awkward postures, spending long hours sitting, and repeating the same task (typing).

Some examples of some musculoskeletal disorders related to work:

  • Headaches due to strain in the cervical neck or base of the head
  • Headaches caused by eye strain
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Tendinitis
  • Rotator cuff injuries (causes pain in the shoulder)
  • Epicondylitis (causes pain in the elbow)
  • Trigger finger
  • Muscle strains and low back injuries

Click here for more information on pain conditions and work.

How a pain specialist can help

A pain specialist is trained to offer different treatments, for your specific type of pain. When it comes to treating chronic pain, a combination of treatments may work best.

Approaches your pain specialist may use:

  • Minimally invasive procedures. Your pain specialist can offer nerve blocks, spine injections, joint injections and other procedures that are performed in a pain clinic and that can treat your pain during flare-ups.
  • Implantable devices. Your pain specialist may recommend a device such as a spinal cord stimulator, a pain pump, or a peripheral nerve stimulator. These devices are placed, close to your spinal cord or close to a nerve that is causing you pain. They provide ongoing treatment for your chronic pain and can help you function better.
  • Medication plan. Your pain specialist can put together a medication plan that is individualized for your type of pain. Different types of pain require different medications. For example, nerve pain is treated differently from bone pain. Your pain specialist can provide medication to control your pain around the clock and a “breakthrough” medication to treat flare-ups.
  • Referrals. Pain specialists may send you for additional treatment from other providers. Complementary treatments may include physical therapy, depression treatment, acupuncture, or massage.

For further reading on chronic pain and the treatments offered by our NSPC doctors, click here.

Managing pain at work

In addition to the treatments that a pain specialist can offer, there are some things you can do to decrease your pain.

The following can help:

Ergonomics. Ergonomics is the study of how to make your workplace more comfortable. Part of this is learning how to position yourself better in your workplace in order to increase safety and productivity. Sometimes companies provide ergonomic workplaces. However, this is a skill you can learn on your own by ensuring you have a correct posture and by keeping your joints in alignment. Adjusting your office chair, or the position of your computer, keeping your feet anchored on the floor, can help.

Taking brakes. Learning when to rest can determine if your pain gets out of control or stays at a reasonable level. It helps to rate your pain on a scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (excruciating pain). When you are around a 3-4, it is time to rest or take your brake-through pain medication.

Stretching. Your activity level can change significantly when you have pain episodes. This is even more of an issue if you have constant pain. A first step in increasing your productivity is to do light stretches, regularly during your workday. Even stretching in your chair, at your desk, can help.


1. Gaskin DJ, Richard P. The economic costs of pain in the United States. J Pain. 2012 Aug;13(8):715-24.

2. Kawai K, Kawai AT, Wollan P, et al. Adverse impacts of chronic pain on health-related quality of life, work productivity, depression and anxiety in a community-based study. Fam Pract. 2017 Nov 16;34(6):656-661.

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