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How to Manage Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain in the Workplace

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More than 1.3 million Americans deal with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This often debilitating disease can make working difficult due to the pain and loss of mobility. In one study, one in five patients with rheumatoid arthritis stopped working within 2 years of diagnosis because of the disease. One-third of the patients stopped working within 5 years. Using RA pain services and managing your rheumatoid arthritis can help you maintain your career longer.

Getting treatment helps to slow the progression of the disease so it doesn’t keep you from your regular work tasks. Keep reading to find ways to manage your rheumatoid arthritis pain in the workplace.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition affecting the joints and classified as an autoimmune disease. That means your body attacks the joints as if they were a foreign substance in your body.

The result is inflammation in the tissues, which leads to pain and swelling. 

Over time, that inflammation damages the cartilage and bones in your joints.

This can result in lots of problems including pain, instability, tightness, loss of mobility, and deformity. Once the damage happens to the joints, it can’t be reversed. Early diagnosis and treatment are key to preventing the damage.

Rheumatoid arthritis usually targets the joints in your knees, ankles, wrists, elbows, feet, and hands. If one joint is affected, the other normally is too. If you have rheumatoid arthritis in one wrist, you’ll likely have it in the other as well. 

How Does Rheumatoid Arthritis Affect Work?

The effects of rheumatoid arthritis on work depend largely on the joints affected, the severity of the pain, and your work duties. The primary issues are pain preventing you from doing basics tasks and reduced mobility in the affected joints, which can interfere with some of your work tasks.

Some possible issues include:

  • Inability to sit or stand for long periods
  • Difficulty walking long distances
  • Need for a walking device, such as a cane or walker
  • Inability to grasp items with your hands
  • Difficulty performing fine motor skills
  • Inability to lift or carry items
  • Limited reach

Pain medication used to treat rheumatoid arthritis may have other effects on your work. Some medications cause drowsiness or dizziness, which can interfere with work functions.

You won’t be able to operate machinery or drive as part of your job due to the risk of auto accidents. You may also have a slower reaction time, which is dangerous in hazardous work conditions. The drowsiness may interfere with your judgment, which is a major problem if you’re responsible for important decisions for your company.

Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause severe fatigue. When you’re exhausted, it’s difficult to complete any work duties. 

Those limitations not only slow your productivity, but they could also put you at a higher risk for workplace injuries and increased risk of workers’ compensation claims. When you’re unable to react quickly or have reduced cognitive awareness, you may become injured during your work duties.

The Unpredictability of Rheumatoid Arthritis

One of the challenges of having rheumatoid arthritis is how unpredictable it is. You often don’t know how you’ll feel on a given day.

Some days your symptoms may be minimal and the condition doesn’t interfere with your work. On other days, even the most basic of tasks is difficult or impossible to complete.

This can cause major swings in your productivity at work. Your boss and coworkers may wonder why your abilities change so much from day to day.

It can make it difficult to keep up with your workload. Once you fall behind due to a bad day, it’s tough to catch back up.

It may also cause you to miss a lot of workdays. Having a growing list of absences may cause your boss to start paying more attention to what you’re doing.

Tell Your Boss

You may be scared to tell your boss about your rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. Some people worry about losing their jobs or being treated differently. Some people are embarrassed about having a medical condition or needing accommodations to do their jobs.

But keeping this information from your boss could have negative effects on your employment, too.

If your productivity drops significantly some days, your boss may wonder what’s happening. You may get warnings at work for your lack of effort. Your coworkers may start to resent you for doing less or expecting them to pick up the slack.

Your boss may start questioning increased absences if your arthritis is forcing you to call in sick. It may seem suspicious if you miss days sporadically, which is what can happen with the unpredictability of rheumatoid arthritis.

By keeping your boss in the loop, you can work together to come up with a solution. Your boss may also be more understanding when you have a lower productivity day or have to miss work.

You can also come up with solutions together to make it possible to continue your work. Your boss can’t make accommodations for you if they don’t know you need them.

Rheumatoid arthritis is covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which means your employer legally can’t discriminate against you due to your illness. Employers with 15 or more employees are required to make reasonable accommodations for you so you can complete your work duties.

The accommodations have to help you perform your job. They also can’t cause an undue hardship on the employer. That usually means either the accommodation would be too expensive or it would disrupt business.

Before you can benefit from the ADA, you need to let your employer know about your situation. You don’t have to tell your boss everything about your condition, but you need to explain enough to prove that you qualify for protection under the ADA. 

If your rheumatoid arthritis is currently well managed and not interfering with your job, you may decide to hold off on telling your boss. It’s a personal decision on the timing and how much you reveal to your employer.

Do Your Treatments

Staying on top of your medical appointments and treatments can help keep your rheumatoid arthritis pain under control at work.

Treatments for the disease aim to protect the joints from further damage by preventing the disease from progressing. This can stop the pain from getting worse. It can also help you maintain more of your mobility so you can continue moving well.

This makes it easier to continue doing your job. If you slack on your treatments and your condition deteriorates, you’ll lose more of your mobility and capabilities for doing your job duties.

The other part of the treatment is pain management. Keeping the chronic pain under control is necessary for you to handle daily activities. It also supports your overall quality of life.

Pain management often comes in the form of pain medication. You may experience side effects from these drugs, so work with your doctor to find a medication that helps control the pain with minimal side effects. Sometimes those side effects can interfere with your job as much as the rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

Hot and cold therapy may provide some temporary relief when you feel pain. Alternate between the two to feel some relief. The heat and cold may also reduce inflammation that often comes with rheumatoid arthritis.

Your medical care team creates your treatment plan for you based on your situation. Follow that treatment plan precisely to get the most benefit from it.

If you don’t feel like your current treatment plan is giving you enough relief, talk to your doctor about trying something new. Changing your medication or adding different therapy options may help. If your disease progresses, you may need more aggressive options to get it under control.

Go to Physical or Occupational Therapy

Physical therapy or occupational therapy may be a part of your treatment protocol. These two therapy options can improve your overall condition, which helps you keep your pain under control at work.

Physical therapy uses specific exercises to help you regain some of your functioning. It can improve your joints so you can move better, and it can help reduce the pain you feel.

Occupational therapy works on changing the way you do things to make them less painful. This type of therapy may be able to help you find new ways to complete work tasks. It can also help with your everyday living activities to reduce your overall pain.

Some people also use massage therapy to help alleviate pain. Talk to your injury doctor or rheumatologist to find out if these therapy options may help you manage your pain.


It may be difficult to move because of your arthritis, but more movement may help improve your situation. By exercising and staying active, you keep your joints moving and functioning better. It may help give you a better range of motion in those joints.

Talk with your medical care team to get recommendations for exercise. Swimming is an option that’s easy on the joints. Walking or riding a bike may also work for you.

Try to keep moving throughout the workday to keep your joints moving. Sitting for too long may cause them to feel stiff or painful.

Visit a Pain Clinic

Your doctor may refer you to a pain clinic. This specialty health facility offers a variety of pain management options, not just medications. They often use a combination of physical, behavioral, and psychological treatments to manage pain.

Modify Your Work Space

Changes to your work environment may help you better deal with your rheumatoid arthritis and continue working. 

Arrange items so you don’t have to reach or bend to get them. Keeping everything at a comfortable level lets you grab the things you need without discomfort or asking for help.

An ergonomic desk and chair can help you sit more comfortably. Choose a chair with lumbar support and adjustable armrests so you can find a comfortable, supportive position. This can help prevent back pain and other discomforts.

A sit-and-stand desk is another option that may help. You may not be able to stand or sit for a long period. With an adjustable desk, you can switch when you need a break from either standing or sitting and continue to work.

Ask for Accommodations

You may need to ask your employer for additional accommodations to complete your job.

If the hours are difficult for you, consider asking for a flexible schedule. Working from home may also be more comfortable if you have a job that you can reasonably do remotely.

If you continue working from the office, you might request a closer parking spot so you can get into the building easily.

You may need more breaks to deal with the pain at work. You might need to get up from your desk or take some time to apply ice or do other treatments.

A looser dress code may help you feel more comfortable. If you’re required to wear a certain type of shoe that is tight or uncomfortable, you might ask to wear something better fitting. This is especially helpful if you experience swelling in your feet.

If you work on a computer, you might ask for a talk-to-type program. This is helpful if your arthritis affects your hands and makes it difficult or painful to type. Dictation software is a similar option.

Document Discrimination

The ADA makes discrimination against covered conditions illegal, but your employer still may try to get away with it. If you feel your employer starts treating you differently and discriminating against you after you disclose your condition, start documenting those behaviors.

You can then file a complaint using your company’s grievance process. This usually takes place through the human resources department. Have your documentation ready to back up your claims.

Choosing the Right RA Pain Doctor

Take advantage of RA pain services through your physician to make working easier. You may need to make some modifications to your work environment and ask for accommodations from your employer. 

If you’re dealing with rheumatoid arthritis and need medical care, find a physician today.