Managing Pain in the Workplace


The most common complaint of patients when they attend physiotherapy is pain and because it’s such a broad subject, we are covering a series of topics throughout May with regards to pain management. We often find that persistent pain is caused by poor posture in general, weak muscle strength and working in certain positions for long periods at a time at work.  This is a big problem because most people are more worried about meeting deadlines than taking care of their bodies, so today we will specifically take a look at how to manage pain in the work place.

Our bodies are made to move, but the unfortunate reality is that we spend most of our time sitting in front of a laptop or computer, behind the steering wheel of a vehicle, or on the couch in front of the television or have job that require us to be in awkward positions for a long periods of time. Our occupations, leisure activities and transport require that we stay in one posture or position for long periods of time which can often result in a variety of musculoskeletal problems, especially from sitting, which is our most common posture.

Postural syndrome is the pain and other symptoms which result from holding one posture for too long or for frequently maintaining an unsuitable posture for shorter lengths of time. It starts with some discomfort after a considerable time in the posture, but as we persist in holding that position, the time to onset of pain and discomfort will become shorter and shorter.

Two of the most common complaints that people have at their workplace are about lower back pain and head aches.

Lower back pain is one of the most common and most troublesome musculoskeletal conditions in the world. There are many causes of back pain and posture can be an influencing factor. Sitting and standing for long periods of time is the most troublesome positions in which we can develop or suffer from back pain.  Very few people have the stability they need to maintain a sitting or standing positions for long without experiencing discomfort or pain. With time these excess strains can cause inflammatory or degenerative changes in the discs, joints, ligaments, and muscles of the back, which can lead to painful symptoms.

Headaches, neck and shoulder pain is the other frequent complaints that we get, especially from office type jobs. You may never have thought of your head as a heavy object, but it can weigh up to five kilograms and it is your neck’s responsibility to hold your head steady for long periods of time.As time goes by, our postural habits may change and cause pain in our neck due to increase of pressure being placed on the joints and muscles of the neck. The most common postural problems in the neck relate to sitting, which is the posture many adults spend most time in at their work. When we are standing the head is usually balanced above the body naturally and this continues in walking, but in sitting we typically slouch our lower back and this has significant effects on the position of the neck. This results in the typical poking chin posture where the head is held forward in relation to the body with the lower neck and upper thoracic area flexed and the mid and upper neck extended. This is puts a lot of strain on the neck which can result in headaches, neck and shoulder pain. It is important to be able to identify the positions that cause discomfort and pain, so it can be managed properly.  If not managed on a daily basis we might find that the aches and pains start becoming a chronic problem

Nobody likes being in pain, especially when you are supposed to be working.  When one pushes through pain at work research has shown that you are actually less productive. The good news is there is adjustments you can make to help prevent these aches and pains. It’s important to work in an optimal posture that puts the least amount of strain on your body.

When you are working in an office environment you should adjust your workstation accordingly.

  • When you are working at a desk, your chair should be nice and close to your desk.
  • It helps if you have an adjustable swivel chair so that you can set the height easily.
  • It is important that your back is supported properly and that your feet are flat on the floor with your knees slightly lower than your hips.
  • Once you are happy with your chair, you can set up your desk by adjusting the position of your computer screen.
  • Your screen should be at a height that is in line with your eyes.  In that way you are not looking up or looking down at your screen.
  • When using your mouse or keyboard, ensure that your arms are not stretched way out forward or to the side.
  • Change your set-up in such a way that your elbows are in a relaxed position next to you and bent 90 degrees when typing or using the mouse.  This takes a lot of pressure off the neck and the shoulders during the day.

If you are working in a workshop environment, remember that there are clever ways that make lifting easier.

  • Bending your knees and keeping your tummy muscles tight before lifting heavy objects.
  • Make sure you have a good grip before lifting heavy things.
  • Keep heavy objects close to your body when lifting and carrying it.
  • Also test the weight before lifting, and if too heavy, get someone to help you.
  • Remember, you only have one back, and once you hurt it, it is almost certain to re-occur when put under strain.

It is not always possible to work in the optimal positions all the time, but the important thing to remember then is to move and take short breaks during the day. It is advised to change position every 30 minutes to an hour if you are working in stationary or awkward positions.

If you battle with pain, it is important to get a proper assessment done by your physiotherapist.  Your physiotherapist can help you with hands-on treatment to help with the pain, but also to test the strength and mobility of structures around the major joint complexes.  Poor posture can be improved with rehabilitation exercises that will further assist to help you manage your pain better.

Diaan Jooste is a registered physiotherapist in Nelson Mandela Bay. Her practice is in 339 Cape road, on the corner of fifth ave and cape road in Newton park. If you have any questions or would like to make her appointment, you can contact her at

Tune into Kingfisher FM every Friday throughout the month of May between 11:00 and 11:30 to find out more about pain management with Diaan.