For many people, work is an essential part of life. It puts food on the table, keeps them connected to others and provides daily satisfaction.
Unfortunately, for plenty of others, it’s also a pain. Literally.
Overuse and repetitive motion injuries plague millions of workers, resulting in pain and lost days on the job.
The umbrella term for these woes is musculoskeletal disorders. The low back is the most commonly affected area, closely followed by the shoulders, neck, elbow, hands and wrists.
Certain jobs pose an especially high risk, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting that laborers and freight, stock and material movers are most frequently affected.
Nursing assistants are next, followed by drivers of heavy trucks and tractor-trailers.
But these injuries can occur in just about any job. And their causes and symptoms can be deceptive, which makes them challenging to treat.
They can arise from less physical tasks, such as typing and answering phones, as well as heavy lifting.
And they’re not only common, but costly.
These types of injuries result in an average of 12 missed workdays per incident.
They hurt physically, too, “whether they’re overuse injuries or those caused by repetitive motion, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis or bursitis,” Spectrum Health athletic trainer Holly Hall said.
These problems, also called ergonomic injuries, can occur abruptly when people start a new job or assignment. But they can also crop up after years on the job, sneaking up on workers.
“It might be very faint, but people will begin to notice an achy soreness,” Hall said. “People might not notice it much, initially.”
But then something changes.
“All of a sudden it’s like, ‘Whoa! I did something I’ve always been able to do and now I’ve got a problem,’” she said.
Start by paying closer attention to pain in general.
“It’s normal, for example, to feel a certain burn after a workout or a new activity. That’s not a bad thing,” Hall said.
Most of the time, occasional stiffness or soreness responds to gentle stretching and a little rest.
“It doesn’t take much for the body to recover when we give it a break,” she said.
Placing heat on the affected area can feel good in the morning, and some people find relief with ice packs.
Soft tissue work, such as massage, self-massage and foam rollers, can also deliver benefits. And ibuprofen may provide a good short-term fix.
But if there’s no improvement in the fatigue and soreness, it’s typically a red flag. Another warning sign: reaching for the ibuprofen for more than three days straight.
Also, if the pain eases during the day but you start to feel numbness, tingling or burning, it could mean the injury has progressed enough to impact nerves, Hall said.
Depending on which body parts hurt, you might even experience a sudden grip problem or inability to squeeze things, she said. You may even notice your hands shaking.
This means it’s time to get serious about the pain’s cause, not just how to care for symptoms.
Many larger organizations employ ergonomic pros like Hall, who come in and look at the work area.
Because everything from the tilt of a keyboard to the height of a loading dock can contribute to pain, these assessments can provide enormous help.
Minor tweaks to workflow, seating and break schedules often ease suffering before it worsens.
Without access to such professionals, however, solving ergonomic problems can get frustrating.
While the internet brims with suggestions, they lean commercial, eager to sell people the perfect chair, desk or keyboard, and they’re often rife with fads like ball chairs.
The first step to treat persistent pain: See a doctor.
Your doctor can provide a physical therapy referral and may even prescribe additional medication, such as steroids.
Take action as soon as possible. Many people think they can tough out the pain, worrying perhaps that others may believe they are lazy or trying to get out of work.
“It’s so common,” Hall said. “People don’t want to let their co-workers down.”
But your physical health should never take a back seat.
“Once they’ve become chronic, these injuries aren’t going to go away on their own,” Hall said. “If you’re in pain, go out there and find help.”