The not so sexy reality of working while living with Chronic Pain. 

Are you like many Australians and live with chronic pain?   Yeah, I know not the sexiest of topics for a business and leadership magazine.  However, with 1 in every 5 Australians living with chronic pain, the chances either you, your employees, your partner, your children, your parents, or someone else you know is living with chronic pain.   

Let me define chronic pain. Pain is said to have become chronic when it exceeds the “normal recovery period” for an injury or condition, and that is usually around 3 months.  

Why am I sharing this with you?  Well it’s to help you see the burden that chronic pain has on our ability to earn, produce, run businesses, attract and retain talent, and how it is eating away at profits and productivity.  

Check out these rather enlightening statistics from Pain Australia: 

The Economic Cost of Chronic Pain  

  • The total economic cost of chronic pain in 2007 was estimated at more than $34 billion, including $11 billion productivity costs and $7 billion direct health care costs.
  • Chronic pain is Australia’s third most costly health condition after cardiovascular diseases and musculoskeletal conditions (also associated with chronic pain).
  • Arthritis and back problems, both associated with chronic pain, are the most common reasons people of working age (between 45 and 64) drop out of the workforce, accounting for 40% of forced retirements.
  • Productivity costs associated with arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions alone were estimated to cost the economy more than $7.4 billion in 2012.
  • The annual cost of pelvic pain alone in Australia is $6 billion. It affects 5% of girls and women and equates to 11 hours of productivity a week.
  • Early intervention and adoption of evidence-based treatment could halve the economic cost of chronic pain, estimated at $34 billion.  

However chronic pain is not a disability sentence.  It is not a reason that someone can never work again.  And may of us living with chronic pain can lead healthy and fulfilling lives.   

Last week I experienced a flare-up of my chronic pain symptoms. 

I haven’t had one for a while.  I was really frustrated and annoyed by it, and I had a massive week to contend with.  I was in no mood to be dealing with a pain flare. 

However, I took control of the situation because I knew that if I didn’t, I was going to become a victim to my experience of pain and that was going to increase my stress levels.  Anybody who has experienced any type of chronic pain knows that when we get stressed, our experience of pain gets worse.  Doesn’t matter which comes first, the pain might cause the stress, or the stress might cause the pain, it’s difficult to interrupt that cycle once it starts. 

Fortunately for me, I was rooming with a GP friend of mine for a few days, and she expressed how impressed she was with the way I reorganised my day to manage this rather severe, increasing pain. 

She had been able to see in my face that I was in pain and recognised that the way I went about my approach for the day, was very different to the couple of days it had been beforehand. 

She encouraged me to write this blog post so that other people might be able to benefit from not only my rehabilitation counselling knowledge and 20 years of working in occupational rehabilitation, but also from my own practical experience. 

I think the biggest thing that I have learned since living with chronic pain over the last four years, is that I refuse to be a victim and react to my pain experience and my flare-ups.  I want to be prepared.  Even though I don’t know when they’re going to happen, I want to be prepared to be able to go, “Hello, pain.  You’re not welcome, but you don’t control me, today.” 

Here are the five things that I automatically engaged in to help me not get through the day, but thrive during the day, as well. 

  1. I planned the use of my pain medication.
    I am one of the very fortunate people who do not need to take pain medication every day.  But when I have a pain flare-up and I’m not near my bed or anywhere where I can lie down for extended periods of time, I need pain medication.
    I had to go and purchase some over the counter at the chemist, but I’ve also worked with my medical specialist on when to take medication and how to use it during the day.
    Now, the pain medication does not get rid of 100% of my pain experience, but takes the edge off and it helps me feel like I am able to cope, which is what I need when I’m having a flare-up.
  1. Igavemyselfmoretimetoprepare.
    I actually got out of bed earlier when all I wanted to do was lie there and moan and groan about my experience of pain and the fact that my right leg didn’t want to move.
    I gave myself longer in the shower.  Gave myself longer to get dressed.  Gave myself longer to get to the office.  And then, gradually, was able to pick up my pace and start to function more effectively.  Giving myself more time and not cutting things as fine as I might usually do, decreased my stress levels, and allowed me a little bit of grace if my body didn’t want to move, to give me some margins in my day allowing me to be more adequately paced to cope with an increase of pain.
  1. Iplannedmorefrequentbutshorterbreaks, and this didn’t mean laying on the floor for half an hour or sitting down doing nothing.  It usually meant a change in posture for five minutes at a time.
    I was in an open-plan office area and I would go for a walk while talking on the phone, or I would offer to go down the stairs and make cups of tea and coffee for the people I was with, or I would get up and go to the sink and have a drink of water.  But essentially, I knew that if I sat all day, I would not be in a good place by the end of the day.
    I also knew that if I stood all day, I was going to be in a worse place at the end of the day.  I still had a 90-minute commute to get home.  It wasn’t just about getting through my day, it was also about managing public transport during peak hour and being able to cope with a 90 minute commute home.
  1. I was aware of my posture.
    Making sure that my core was working the way it needed to, that I engaged all the right muscles at the right time. Making my bigger muscles do the work, not my smaller muscles.
    Even though I was tired and fatigued, even though my concentration was poor, I am very aware of the role that posture plays when my flare-ups come into play. The better I can look after my posture, the better position I’m putting my body in to be able to do the work it needs to do the way it was designed to do it.
    Fatigue breeds laziness, which causes us to not use our bodies in an effective way, which puts more stress on smaller muscles and the smaller bones in our body, which actually causes greater inflammation and more pain.  It’s a vicious cycle when we’re tired.  I understand that.  But if you can hold yourself upright and get used to good postural practises, this is going to help you maintain your function throughout the day.
  1. And finally, the big one for me, I said no to non-essentials. There’s always things that come up in my day where people go, “Can you do this?  Can you do that?  Can you say this?  Can you say that?  Can you return this call?  Can you proof-read this report?”
    For me, on a pain flare-up day, the non-essentials don’t get a look-in.  I do what needs to be done, what I’ve committed to, making sure that I deliver with excellence and on time to the best of my ability. 

We know that 20% of Australians live with chronic pain.  That’s one in five people, and the research is really, really clear – the experience of chronic pain is different for everyone.  There is no “one size fits all” approach.  It’s real and it hurts. 

I’m hoping that in sharing this post with you today, you’ve been given some ideas and some clues on how you might be able to manage your experience of pain should you ever be in the position where you’re experiencing a pain flare-up or you can share this article with someone you know who lives with chronic pain to encourage them and help them know they are not alone.  

Flare-up management plans are vital to regaining a sense of control over pain and the unexpected nature of pain flares.  This is something you can do, and it’s not as hard as you might think.  Is this something that would be helpful for you? 

If you’d like more information on how we can assist you manage your experience of pain while your preparing for work, or maintaining yourself at work, please get in touch with us at [email protected]. 

Who is Jo Muirhead? 

Jo is all about connecting people to purpose through inspiration and innovation.  Jo graduated from the University of Sydney in 1994 with a Bachelor of Health Science, Rehabilitation Counselling and is a sought-after speaker, consultant and coach.  

Work is a significant part of our life, yet for so many of us work is hard and leaves us feeling exhausted, unwell and in extreme cases unable to earn at all.  Jo and the Purple Co team use their expertise in human behavior to help people to make their work, work well for them.  Jo knows that work is not all of who we are, BUT without work our health, our wealth and the ability to live a fulfilled life can’t be realized.   

The key problems Jo and her team solve are: 

  • Helping people return to work following injury, illness or disability. 
  • Building personal capacity and resilience as foundation for creating success in the 21st Century workforce.  
  • Mapping, planning and implementing how to make your work, work well. 

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