Going to work when you have a chronic pain-causing condition can be difficult or even downright impossible, depending on the job. Studies have shown that people with rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to change jobs, reduce their hours, be fired, and retire early than people without the condition.
If you have chronic pain and are in the workforce, you should try to find an occupation that isn't too physically demanding and allows you to work at your own pace. Here's our list of some of the best and worst choices.
Best: Administrative assistant
Sitting at a desk all day is not ideal for someone with painful joints. Working as an administrative assistant, however, could have its benefits. You may not have to perform a lot of repetitive movements, unless it's typing. Also, this position probably comes with some flexibility—it's important to be able to move around when you need to and take breaks as necessary.
A 2012 study out of the University of Georgia found that administrative assistants and office staff in general had the fewest reported injuries of the occupations studied.
If you have a green thumb, it's wise to limit your talents to your own yard. Landscaping tasks like pruning that involve frequent use of hand tools can cause pain in the small joints.
Landscaping also requires a lot of bending, stooping over, and kneeling, which can cause pain in joints, particularly the knees. Finally, it also involves lifting and hauling, sometimes in wheelbarrows, which can cause back pain.
Amy Beamer, a 38-year-old from Tampa, Fla. has had rheumatoid arthritis for a decade. A CPA by trade, she found accounting to be a manageable career, even when her arthritis got more aggressive.
She did find, however, that stress could trigger flare-ups. She used to travel and work long hours, but was able to cut back to four days a week and avoid high-stress situations. An understanding employer and flexible work hours have allowed her to continue to work. "You don’t have to stop working, but sometimes you just can’t do the things you used to do," she says.
Worst: Truck driver
This job tends to be a poor choice for someone with chronic pain. Whether driving long or short distances, a truck driver is trapped in a seat for long periods of time, which puts pressure on the back. There is little time to move around and stretch painful joints.
Dr. Scott Bautch, CEO for Allied Health Chiropractic Centers located in Wisconsin, says truck drivers have some of the highest rates of back pain. Because of the lack of movement and often crazy hours, sleep problems plague truck drivers in general, which is not good for people with rheumatoid arthritis who are at risk for fatigue.
Best: Lawyer and engineer
In some job categories, there are good and bad options for people with pain. A trial lawyer, who may need to be confined to a seat for days on end: Bad. Other kinds of law where you have more mobility can be good.
A structural engineer, who may have to climb around in buildings, might be a poor fit, but other kinds of engineering can work out just perfectly. Both occupations tend to offer benefits and potentially flexible scheduling.
These types of jobs tend to be poor choices for two reasons: They can require repetitive movements and long periods standing (or sitting) in one place. Neither of these are good for people living with chronic pain.
And, if you're on an assembly line, you probably don't have a lot of control over your breaks or ability to rest your muscles as needed.
Working for yourself has a couple of drawbacks—unsteady pay and lack of health insurance. If you can overcome these issues, self-employment is a great answer for someone with chronic pain. Ashley Boynes Shuck, a 29-year-old from Pittsburgh, Pa., who has rheumatoid arthritis, says she is much healthier since she quit full-time work to be a contractor in public relations and social media.
"I feel so much better physically," she says. "It allows rest and the ability to exercise more and my stress levels are so much less. Working full time was difficult physically and emotionally—if you can do something to make it easier on yourself, you have to do it."
Worst: Elementary school teacher
Teaching younger children can be hard on the body. Grade-school teachers have high rates of back pain because they spend so much time on their feet, says Bautch. What's more, teachers may need to constantly tie shoes and pick up toys and books off of the floor.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis and want to teach, aim to instruct slightly older students to avoid the bending and lifting that's more common with younger children.
In order to connect with people who have similar challenges, many people with chronic illnesses reach out to local associations that advocate for their conditions. For some, this can be very rewarding work.
Nonprofit organizations are often more laid back than the traditional corporations and may be more likely to understand your physical challenges, particularly if they relate to the organization's mission. Boynes Shuck works with the Arthritis Foundation and says it's rewarding to give back.
"Studies have shown that philanthropy can make you feel better," she says. "You can help others instead of focusing on your own problems and pain. If you have to live with an illness, it is nice to use it for something good."
Worst: Health care
Most health care jobs are not good choices for people with chronic pain. They bring high stress, long hours, and lots of time on your feet. Some of these jobs are particularly difficult, including working in nursing homes, home health, or physical therapy.
Not only do these people spend a lot of time on their feet, but the jobs entail a lot of bending, lifting, and moving patients in awkward positions. This could affect not only the back, but many other joints as well.
Best: Software engineer
This occupation can be stressful and entail a lot of sitting. But many employers in the industry are progressive. This may mean a more flexible schedule than other desk jobs, and the ability to get a standing desk and time to move around when you need it. These are often well-paying positions and come with benefits.
This position has also topped CareerCast.com's Best Jobs list (software engineer) and CareerBliss.com's Happiest Jobs list (software quality assurance engineer was first; software engineer, 15th) for 2012.
It's no surprise construction work is on the American Chiropractic Association's list of Top 10 Jobs that cause back strain.
Specialists like roofers and sheetrock installers can have some of the worst problems. Not only do they lift all day, but their work is repetitive, which can cause pain and flare-ups in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
"Specialists like sheetrockers have more injuries than generalists do," Dr. Bautch says. "These aren't jobs that people with chronic pain or RA are probably going to be in."
As long as your hands can deal with typing, this could be an ideal job for someone with chronic pain. As a freelance writer, you can work from home and have a flexible schedule to fit in doctor's appointments, exercise, and sleep.
If you're in an office, you will at least have some ability to make your workspace comfortable and move around as needed. Take a few minutes an hour to step away from the computer screen; frequent breaks can help prevent problems.
Most forms of retail are bad for people with chronic pain. Not only do you spend most of your time on your feet, if you have to stock products or bag groceries, you'll spend your day reaching, turning, and lifting, Bautch says. These repetitive movements can exacerbate painful symptoms.
Worst: Food industry
There are few careers in the food industry that are suitable for people with chronic pain. Working in a food processing plant is out of the question, says Bautch. People in this industry deal with high temperatures, repetitive motion, and prolonged standing.
Working in a restaurant setting can often be just as bad. These are somewhat low-paying jobs that often don't provide health benefits. A lot of time on your feet and lifting plates and trays are sure to exacerbate symptoms.
Worst: Auto mechanics
Auto mechanics also landed on the list of the Top 10 Jobs that cause back pain. Using tools like wrenches and screwdrivers can be nearly impossible for people with conditions like RA that affect the hands.
Mechanics also work in awkward positions all day—bending to work under car hoods and sliding around under cars.