How to have an excellent life with chronic pain
November 1, 2016 4:34 PM   Subscribe

I am a woman in my mid-twenties with chronic back pain. How do I find a job suited to my lifestyle, and communicate about my pain without putting off employers?

Pain issues are a bitch - this particular one manifests as unbearable back pain, tingling thighs, and numbness down one leg. Most days, I try to ignore these issues, but I have occasional episodes that leave me bed-ridden. Typical office jobs have been hard for me, because sitting aggravates the pain.

Looking back on my choices, I have followed a career path (now, at the age of 26) that doesn't require much sitting. I would love to accomplish more and even do hobbies after work that require sitting! But pain makes it hard. Things I have looked into: teaching, freelance writing, high-paid hourly work (maybe getting a certificate as an IT specialist?).

An extra issue is that these issues affect my productivity. The way the pain comes and goes is like a wave - some days, I don't want to get out of bed, and can't even comfortably walk - some days, it's mostly fine and I can sit for up to 5 hours. So I don't want to write off having a normal 9-5, but consistently across my career, I have been distracted and impaired by pain. Is there a way I can convey this to employers?

Finally, any books or resources that help with understanding chronic pain are welcome!
posted by benadryl to Human Relations (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a high school teacher: while it hardly compares to the demanding nature of a job with a great deal of manual labor, it's a rather physically demanding career nonetheless because you are expected to constantly be interacting with students. Elementary school teachers are much, much more physical because they need to constantly move around with children, sit in smaller chairs and on the floor with students, etc. If you have a medical diagnosis for this pain and recommendations from doctors, OTs, etc., then your workplace is required to make "reasonable accommodations" for you according to the ADA.

If you're still interested in teaching, I'd look into shadowing a teacher in your desired grade and subject area all-day for at least two weeks, and see how you are feeling at the end of the day. Nowadays I'm rarely physically or mentally exhausted at the end of the school day but I have over a decade of experience and it took many years to find this balance.
posted by smorgasbord at 5:00 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Please forgive the rather obvious question, but have you tried a standing or sit-to-stand desk?
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:31 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Can you look for a job where teleworking is the norm? I used to work at a software company with a guy who had some health issues, and he would work from home a few days a week. He did IT/devops type stuff for us, and he would connect to company servers remotely. We would sometimes Skype when he was at home, and he showed us a kind of contraption he had rigged where he could type on his computer even when he was lying down.

I'm not sure if your pain issues would allow you to do that, but there are a lot of positions that allow you to work from home. I now work for a smaller company, and we hire outside freelance people to do some of our marketing/social media, bookkeeping, and other smaller functions where we don't need someone full time, but we do want someone skilled. I know that a few of these people work from home.
posted by bluefly at 5:38 PM on November 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Stupid question: have you not been able to get treatment for this chronic pain? Should we just assume with our answers that the chronic pain is going to continue indefinitely?

So sorry you're dealing with this.
posted by a strong female character at 6:40 PM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have you been to a doctor and/or physical therapist? A good physical therapist is worth her weight in gold.
posted by bookworm4125 at 6:49 PM on November 1, 2016

Are you legally disabled because of this? In my experience, government employers tend to take accommodations for employees with disabilities Very Seriously. Depending on where you live and your proximity to a Federal/State/Big City government entity, you might be able to land something with a gov't employer that would have them legally required to get you a standing desk in addition to accommodating your bad pain days with a more flexible schedule.
posted by Ndwright at 8:09 PM on November 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

IANAD, but it seems that you are suffering from sciatica. A back pain specialist doctor might help you with therapy. Meantime, try rubbing on Aspercreme. It helps.
posted by Cranberry at 12:09 AM on November 2, 2016

@astrongfemalecharacter, - yeah, it's fair to assume this will continue. It might not, which would be nice, but it's been like 8 years. And obviously lots of people stay gainfully employed and productive with chronic lifelong pain! Kind of just curious how others go about this.
posted by benadryl at 3:08 AM on November 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I work in IT as project manager - standing/adjustable desks are a big thing in IT and that's been a life saver for me as I struggle with ongoing hip and back issues myself.
posted by coffee_monster at 3:39 AM on November 2, 2016

One thing you might try, if you haven't already, is asking a physical therapist what they would recommend you do to manage your back pain given your diagnosis and your lifestyle. When I blew a disc in my lower back last summer and was partially incapacitated by the pain, my physical therapist had some very specific suggestions for what I could do to minimize it and manage my basic duties (sitting at a desk, driving around, etc.) without making things worse than they had to be. It helped.

In general, I would look for ways to take really, really good care of your back. Keep it strong theough exercise, give it plenty of rest, and make sure that things like your mattress, car seat, work desk, and shoes are set up so that they are as good for your back as you can make them.

Also, if you think this might be an ongoing thing that might cause you difficulty in holding down a full-time job, consider applying for partial disability payments. (Or whatever the nearest equivalent in your country is, if you don't live in the USA.) From what I understand, getting approved (in the US) is typically a years-long, dysfunctional process that involves being denied and then appealing the denial repeatedly until they finally approve you, which is all the more reason for you to start it now rather than wait until things get so bad that you can't live without it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:25 AM on November 2, 2016

I worked with a person who worked from home mostly; he had a rig where he lay in a sling and typed on his keyboard and spoke on his headset. Kinda like a hang glider, or this medical unweighter.
posted by at at 8:18 AM on November 2, 2016

I've dealt with chronic pain for 2/3 of my life. Ask yourself this: What jobs are best suited to mostly standing, and flexible enough to accommodate rough days where getting out of bed and walking are nearly pipe dreams? The two I'm coming up with are freelance writer/editor/blogger, and college professor. (If it was just standing, you get hairdresser, health care professional - including veterinarian, retail, food services, tour guide, various types of mechanics, etc.)

The biggest thing I've found helpful is to keep in mind this quote: It's not what they take away from you that counts. It's what you do with what you have left. Don't focus on what you can't do. Focus on what you can.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 7:59 AM on November 4, 2016

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