Work related pain

Learn about work related pain, potential casuses and discover practical tips to assist your recovery

Work related pain means pain that occurs as a direct result of work (such as an injury at work), or pain that affects your work performance (for example, you might have rheumatoid arthritis and experience pain flares at times).

On the whole, the types of pain problems associated with work are often similar to those that occur outside of work (for example, low back pain). If you do have a specific diagnosis (for example rheumatoid arthritis, or fibromyalgia), you may require specific treatments for pain or temporary modifications to work, but you usually can still stay at work.

Key messages include1:

  • Work is good for your health.
  • An early return to work leads to the best possible outcome for people with work related pain.
  • Most people who experience work-related pain do not require time off work.
  • Where possible, early return to work (even on light duties) is an important positive step in your recovery.

Below we outline practical tips and resources to help you through your work-related pain.

We outline some of the challenges and complexities of work related pain and guide you through reliable information, tips and resources to help you.

These tools and information are suggested as part of your co-care: co-care means what you can do and what your health team can do together to get the best outcome for you.

What caused my work-related pain?

Sometimes a clear reason or diagnosis for your work-related pain can’t be made. This does not mean that your pain is not real – it is! There is still a lot we do not understand about pain. But the good news is that there is a lot of research (science) to show the things that are most likely to be helpful2. These are summarised below and throughout our Pain Management modules.

There are lots of different reasons for work-related pain, some of which have a diagnosis, but many of which may not:

A specific incident or event

  • This is the most easily recognised ‘injury’, and might involve a muscle injury, a joint sprain or a broken bone
  • Initial management is based around allowing the tissues involved having time to recover
  • Early return to work and reconditioning programs are also important early on for optimal recovery1, 2

Overuse / gradual onset

  • Some work tasks involve repetitive postures or movements (such as working on a factory line). You may do the same job for long periods of time
  • Pain associated with repetitive or prolonged tasks may involve some form of tissue overload and this can be associated with pain and symptoms. Treating the actual tissue injury is only part of the solution. You may also need to adjust how you work, alter your workstation or work on your physical conditioning
  • Looking at causes of your pain problem (both work and personal factors) is an import part of rehabilitation and a long term solution3

No clear cause or reason

  • Pain can start without a clear cause. This is referred to as ‘non-specific’ pain. Non-specific means there is no concerning injury or pathology – this does not mean it is not real or that there is nothing that can be done about it!
  • A number of different factors (including sleep, exercise, mood, ill health, abdominal obesity and genetics) can ‘pre-sensitise’ our tissues to be more vulnerable to pain and injury4
  • While work related factors may have ‘triggered’ your pain, successful management will involve addressing all of contributing factors2
  • See our pain modules making sense of painapproaching pain and sleep and pain

Practical tips for recovering well from work-related pain

When you are in pain or suffering poor health, the balance of the health benefits of work can shift. If your have ongoing work-related pain, try listening to the ‘Making Sense of Pain’ YouTube clip. This will help you understand some of the reasons why pain can persist.

A positive frame of mind can have a big impact on your healing and recovery. Other things that also help are2:

  • Stay at work, or return to work as soon as possible – talk to your manager about alternative suitable duties if your doctor assesses you as partially fit to return to work
  • Follow the advice of your health care team
  • Stay active and positive by continuing with your usual activities as much as you can See Movement With Pain for some practical tips
  • Be proactive. People who stay active and engage in their rehabilitation plan usually return to work more quickly – listen to Shaun’s story. You can:
    • Stay in touch with your work mates
    • Accept help from family and friends
    • Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t do.
  • Focus on the positives as far as possible: the ‘blame game’ can actually delay your recovery5

Should I be at work with my work related pain?

The short answer is YES – where possible, try and stay at work or return to work as early as possible as this typically helps your recovery1, 2!

You may have a health condition that exists, whether or not you are at work. This includes musculoskeletal conditions like fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. There is very clear evidence that work is good for your overall health and wellbeing2. Prolonged absence from work is one of the strongest predictors of poor recovery from work related pain3.

Early return to work (even on light duties) is an important positive step in your recovery and leads to the best possible outcome for people with work related pain1.

There are some circumstances (such as immediately following a major injury or an operation), where it is not appropriate for you to be at work. You should discuss this with your doctor and employer and try and agree on a timeframe for your return to work.

It is important for you and your health care team to work together to plan your recovery.

What about work-related pain and compensation?

In Western Australia each year, approximately 1 out of every 100 workers have work-related pain that results in a workers’ compensation claim and requires at least one week off work. The good news is that around 80% of people manage to return to work following time off due to work related pain.

‘Sprains and strains’ account for over half of work-related pain, and are most common among workers involved in manual labour. The low back / spine is most frequently affected region, but the upper limbs and lower limbs are also commonly affected.

See our PDF of useful information About Worker’s Compensation

What are the benefits of being at work with work-related pain?

The short answer is – it depends2. No one size fits all. What is important is that you are in the driver’s seat and working closely with your doctor and other health care professionals to develop a treatment plan best suited to your individual needs.

For most people, an integrated or holistic approach is best. Mostly, more than one treatment is required and combining treatments can be much more effective (for example, getting better sleep, helps reduce pain, improve mood and provides a window for you to be more active. You may need to address mood, thinking, relationships, activity and exercise, sleep, fear or anxiety, return to work and what/which/if medicines can help.

See our pain management section for what treatments might be best for you. You can then discuss this with your health team and work a plan up together.

What about medications?

Pain medicines help some people, some of the time.

Pain medicines can help to reduce pain so that you can sleep better, improve your mood, return to work sooner, reduce your pain and allow you to stay active in a sensibly paced way). Overall, for persistent pain, most medicines are only ~30% effective so you can’t rely just on medicines to manage pain.7

You can find more information about medications from our medicines and procedures pain module. NDS also has a useful tool to help you plan your pain management.

Further information

For further information we recommend Cochrane Summaries. If you need to speak to your GP or health care professional, please seek further assistance.

Making sense of pain

Approaching pain

Sleep and pain

Worked related pain FAQs

Worker's compensation fact sheet

Tips to help you manage your pain whilst at work

  1. Royal Australasian College of Physicians, The Australasian Faculty of Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Realising the Health Benefits of Work, Position Statement. 2011. Available from: httpss://www.racp.edu.au/docs/default-source/advocacy-library/realising-the-health-benefits-of-work.pdf?sfvrsn=10.
  2. Vooijs M, Leensen MC, Hoving JL, Wind H, Frings-Dresen MH. Interventions to enhance work participation of workers with a chronic disease: a systematic review of reviews. Occup Environ Med. 2015; 72(11):820-6. DOI:10.1136/oemed-2015-103062.[PubMed]
  3. Street TD, Lacey SJ. A systematic review of studies identifying predictors of poor return to work outcomes following workplace injury. Work. 2015; 51(2):373-81. DOI:10.3233/WOR-141980.[PubMed]
  4. Vooijs M, Leensen MC, Hoving JL, Daams JG, Wind H, Frings-Dresen MH. Disease-generic factors of work participation of workers with a chronic disease: a systematic review. Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2015; 88(8):1015-29. DOI:10.1007/s00420-015-1025-2.[PubMed]
  5. Kilgour E, Kosny A, McKenzie D, Collie A. Healing or harming? Healthcare provider interactions with injured workers and insurers in workers’ compensation systems. J Occup Rehabil. 2015; 25(1):220-39. DOI:10.1007/s10926-014-9521-x.[PubMed]
  6. Manson JF, Landham PR, Cunningham JE, Montgomery AS, Don AS, Robertson PA. Universal No-fault Compensation is Associated With Improved Return to Work Rates in Spine Fusion. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2015; 40(20):1620-31. DOI:10.1097/BRS.0000000000001096.[PubMed]
  7. Borsook D, Moulton EA, Schmidt KF, Becerra LR. Neuroimaging revolutionizes therapeutic approaches to chronic pain. Mol Pain. 2007; 3:25. DOI:1744-8069-3-25 [pii] 10.1186/1744-8069-3-25.[PubMed]

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