10 ways to reduce pain at work

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As an Integrative Physical Therapist, I’m always trying to help people feel more comfortable, connected, and at home with their bodies. While many of us experience this feeling in yoga classes, on the dance floor, while exercising, cuddling with family or pets, etc., very few of us experience the feeling of comfort and connection with our bodies while working. In my years of Physical Therapy practice and study, I have developed a list of 10 practices to help make work life less painful and perhaps even more mindful and pleasant.

Before we dive into the list, it is important to understand how personal the experience of pain is. Pain is a normal, healthy part of our nervous system, giving us information on how to keep our body safe. But this idea of safety alongside our experience of pain is complex, highly personal, and intrinsically linked with stress and inflammatory responses in our bodies. This is why an experience like a deep tissue massage can be incredibly pleasurable to one person yet incredibly painful to another. With each of these suggestions, keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules. There is no one right answer for all people. Think of this list as options on a menu; you can peruse the menu and decide for yourself what you’d like to sample to help your body thrive.

  1. Stand and walk
    We have all heard about the dangers of sitting too much, so seeking out opportunities to stand and move during your work day could literally save your life. Standing desks, walking meetings, parking further away, standing during conference calls or lunch are all strategies to sneak more movement into your work day.
  2. Fidget and stretch
    Research has indicated that even if you find yourself sitting for long periods of time, fidgeting and stretching may be protective for your health. Simple stretches and wiggles could go a long way to keeping your body feeling supple and relaxed.
  3. Ergonomics
    Simple ergonomic adjustments like having your keyboard at elbow height and your monitor at eye-level can help reduce neck, back, hand, and elbow pain.
  4. Fix your posture
    Aches and pain in your neck and back often come from slumped, forward-head sitting postures, where our back tissues get over-stretched and weak while our neck tissues get overworked and tight. Checking in on your sitting position throughout the workday to make sure you have a long, neutral spine with your head balanced over your body can help alleviate back and neck pain.
  5. Hydrate
    When we don’t get enough water, the first part of our body to lose hydration is our skin, soft tissues, muscles and joints, making us feel stiff, achy, and sore. But how much water do we need to stay hydrated? A good guideline is to take your body weight in pounds, divide it by two, and that is roughly how many ounces of water we should drink daily. Although if you sweat a lot, you might need more. Remember that water-filled foods like fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and soups all add to our water intake. Plus, if you are staying hydrated, you might naturally get more steps in for all of those bathroom breaks!
  6. Belly breathe
    When we let our breath drop low in our body so that our belly expands on the inhale and softens on the exhale, we stimulate our body’s natural relaxation response.
  7. Practice mindfulness
    Any practice that encourages intentional, non-judgmental awareness to the present moment is a mindfulness practice. This could be done through formal meditation or through simple belly breathing awareness, or mindful eating or walking. Belly breathing and mindfulness practices promote the body’s natural relaxation response, which can reduce the suffering experienced from pain.
  8. Plan for active and passive renewal
    We all need moments of renewal throughout our day. Taking breaks every 90 minutes can help to reconnect us with our bodies, releasing pain and tension patterns. Active renewal could be a quick stretch break, a short walk, or an impromptu dance party. Passive renewal could be meditation, closing your eyes for one minute, or listening to relaxing music.
  9. Adopt an anti-inflammatory lifestyle
    You can decrease inflammation and pain by eating foods such as brightly colored fruits and vegetables, getting adequate sleep, and positive stress management techniques.
  10. Seek help
    When tips 1-9 are not enough, seeking help through evidence-based pain management modalities like physical therapy, acupuncture, yoga, chiropractic care, or massage can all help reduce pain and promote healing. You can find a full list of these providers across the state of Minnesota.

While this list may seem like a lot, know that all the items on this list are adaptable to your needs. Small changes can have a big impact. It is also important to hold compassion for ourselves whenever we are in pain. Seemingly “unhealthy” lifestyle choices like not getting enough sleep or eating junk food can be a result of very complex reasons, such as trauma, extreme stress, financial or time constraints, or family conditioning. Perhaps the simple act of offering kindness, compassion, and empathy for ourselves and our coworkers as we navigate our workday could be even more important than anything on this list!

About the author

Justice Catherine ContactCatherine Justice, DPT, C-IAYT, CST, FAIHM sees patients in the Integrative Health Clinic in the Clinic & Specialty Center.