Work related pain

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

Last updated: 28 Oct 2023 · 11 min read

Evidence shows that good work is good for your health. This can be due to:

  • Providing a sense of community and social inclusion.
  • Allowing workers to feel they are making a contribution to their family and society.
  • Engaging in physical activity through work.

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 include:

  • Most people who experience work related pain do not require time off work.
  • If you do need some time off work, an early return to work leads to the best possible outcome for people with work related pain.
  • 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 are learning 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 helpful. 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 to have time to recover (usually within 6 weeks)
  • Early return to work and reconditioning programs are also important early on for optimal recovery

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 the causes of your pain problem (both work and personal factors) is an important part of rehabilitation and a longer term solution

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 injury
  • While work related factors may have ‘triggered’ your pain, successful management will involve addressing all of contributing factors
  • See our pain modules making sense of painapproaching pain and sleep and pain

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What represents high-value care for people with work related pain?

  • You being involved in decisions about your care and recovery
  • A clear diagnosis (what is wrong) and plan for recovery
  • A focus on active treatments (exercise and activity), rather than passive treatments (medication/rest/massage/acupuncture)
  • Investigations (scans or x-rays) only in some circumstances
  • Time frames for reviewing progress and expected recovery
  • Setting a date for return to work
  • Considering physical, psychological, social and workplace factors in your recovery plan

What represents low-value care for people with work related pain?

  • Ongoing reliance on rest, medication and other passive treatments
  • Waiting to be 100% recovered before returning to some work
  • Having surgery before trying active rehabilitation for 6-12 weeks (except if there is major trauma that requires urgent surgery)
  • Lack of communication between those involved in your care and recovery
  • Continuing with treatments that are not clearly helping you improve
  • Not considering physical, psychological, social and workplace factors in your recovery plan, if they are relevant

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 good work can shift. If you 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 are:

  • 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 recovery

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 recovery!

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 good work is good for your overall health and wellbeing. Prolonged absence from work is one of the strongest predictors of poor recovery from work related pain.

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 pain.

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 the most frequently affected regions, but the upper limbs and lower limbs are also commonly affected.

See our Fact sheet PDFs of useful information About Worker’s Compensation. If you live in WA, you can also find good information here. For all Australian states and territories, you can find helpful information here.

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

The short answer is – it depends. 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 on a plan 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.

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.


Your recovery from work related pain should include three important components:

  1. Healthcare for your condition
  2. Good coordination of services so everyone involved is clear on the plan
  3. Work assistance or modification to allow you to return to some form of work as quickly as possible

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 Good Work, Consensus Statement. 2017. Available from:
  2. Cullen, K. L., E. Irvin, A. Collie, F. Clay, U. Gensby, P. A. Jennings, S. Hogg-Johnson, V. Kristman, M. Laberge, D. McKenzie, S. Newnam, A. Palagyi, R. Ruseckaite, D. M. Sheppard, S. Shourie, I. Steenstra, D. Van Eerd and B. C. Amick, 3rd (2018). Effectiveness of Workplace Interventions in Return-to-Work for Musculoskeletal, Pain-Related and Mental Health Conditions: An Update of the Evidence and Messages for Practitioners. J Occup Rehabil 28(1): 1-15. [PubMed]
  3. Lin, I., L. Wiles, R. Waller, R. Goucke, Y. Nagree, M. Gibberd, L. Straker, C. G. Maher and P. P. B. O’Sullivan (2020). What does best practice care for musculoskeletal pain look like? Eleven consistent recommendations from high-quality clinical practice guidelines: systematic review. Br J Sports Med 54(2): 79-86. [BJSM]
  4. 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]
  5. 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]
  6. 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]


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