Best and worst jobs for people in pain

On-the-job pain management starts with finding an occupation that meets your needs.
Health.com // Health.com

Going to work when you have a chronic pain-causing condition can be difficult or even downright impossible, depending on the job. Studies have shown that people with rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to change jobs, reduce their hours, be fired, and retire early than people without the condition.

If you have chronic pain and are in the workforce, you should try to find an occupation that isn't too physically demanding and allows you to work at your own pace. Here's our list of some of the best and worst choices.

--By Tammy Worth, Health.com

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Administrative assistant

Best

Sitting at a desk all day is not ideal for someone with painful joints. Working as an administrative assistant, however, could have its benefits. You may not have to perform a lot of repetitive movements, unless it's typing. Also, this position probably comes with some flexibility—it's important to be able to move around when you need to and take breaks as necessary.

A 2012 study out of the University of Georgia found that administrative assistants and office staff in general had the fewest reported injuries of the occupations studied.

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Landscaper

Worst

If you have a green thumb, it's wise to limit your talents to your own yard. Landscaping tasks like pruning that involve frequent use of hand tools can cause pain in the small joints.

Landscaping also requires a lot of bending, stooping over, and kneeling, which can cause pain in joints, particularly the knees. Finally, it also involves lifting and hauling, sometimes in wheelbarrows, which can cause back pain.

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Accountant

Best

Amy Beamer, a 38-year-old from Tampa, Fla. has had rheumatoid arthritis for a decade. A CPA by trade, she found accounting to be a manageable career, even when her arthritis got more aggressive.

She did find, however, that stress could trigger flare-ups. She used to travel and work long hours, but was able to cut back to four days a week and avoid high-stress situations. An understanding employer and flexible work hours have allowed her to continue to work. "You don’t have to stop working, but sometimes you just can’t do the things you used to do," she says.

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Truck driver

Worst

This job tends to be a poor choice for someone with chronic pain. Whether driving long or short distances, a truck driver is trapped in a seat for long periods of time, which puts pressure on the back. There is little time to move around and stretch painful joints.

Scott Bautch, MD, CEO for Allied Health Chiropractic Centers located in Wisconsin, says truck drivers have some of the highest rates of back pain. Because of the lack of movement and often crazy hours, sleep problems plague truck drivers in general, which is not good for people with rheumatoid arthritis who are at risk for fatigue.

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Lawyer and engineer

Best

In some job categories, there are good and bad options for people with pain. A trial lawyer, who may need to be confined to a seat for days on end: Bad. Other kinds of law where you have more mobility can be good.

A structural engineer, who may have to climb around in buildings, might be a poor fit, but other kinds of engineering can work out just perfectly. Both occupations tend to offer benefits and potentially flexible scheduling.

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Manufacturing

Worst

These types of jobs tend to be poor choices for two reasons: They can require repetitive movements and long periods standing (or sitting) in one place. Neither of these are good for people living with chronic pain.

And, if you're on an assembly line, you probably don't have a lot of control over your breaks or ability to rest your muscles as needed.

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Contractor/self-employment

Best

Working for yourself has a couple of drawbacks—unsteady pay and lack of health insurance. If you can overcome these issues, self-employment is a great answer for someone with chronic pain. Ashley Boynes Shuck, a 29-year-old from Pittsburgh, Penn., who has rheumatoid arthritis, says she is much healthier since she quit full-time work to be a contractor in public relations and social media.

"I feel so much better physically," she says. "It allows rest and the ability to exercise more and my stress levels are so much less. Working full time was difficult physically and emotionally—if you can do something to make it easier on yourself, you have to do it."

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Elementary school teacher

Worst

Teaching younger children can be hard on the body. Grade-school teachers have high rates of back pain because they spend so much time on their feet, says Dr. Bautch.

What's more, teachers may need to constantly tie shoes and pick up toys and books off of the floor.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis and want to teach, aim to instruct slightly older students to avoid the bending and lifting that's more common with younger children.

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Nonprofit

Best

In order to connect with people who have similar challenges, many people with chronic illnesses reach out to local associations that advocate for their conditions. For some, this can be very rewarding work.

Nonprofit organizations are often more laid back than the traditional corporations and may be more likely to understand your physical challenges, particularly if they relate to the organization's mission. Boynes Shuck works with the Arthritis Foundation and says it's rewarding to give back.

"Studies have shown that philanthropy can make you feel better," she says. "You can help others instead of focusing on your own problems and pain. If you have to live with an illness, it is nice to use it for something good."

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