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Is Your Job Painful?
Lifting, bending, sitting for hours — it's no wonder muscles are sore at workday's end. Here's how to manage the pain without getting a pink slip.
By Jennifer Acosta Scott
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
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Most everyone has had painful episodes from everyday activities, like a marathon weed-pulling session or too much strength training at the gym. But for people like Linda Cutshall (pictured top left) of Knoxville, Tenn., the pain culprit resides at the workplace.
Cutshall has experienced back pain and muscle soreness as a result of caring for six children at her in-home daycare, where it’s nearly impossible to have a proper ergonomic office. “The repetitive lifting of heavy toddlers, cleaning, crawling on floors, and just the everyday cooking, cleaning, and maintenance care can be very painful and stressful on the body,” says Cutshall, whose pain is compounded by fibromyalgia and, currently, a broken foot.
Though most jobs have some degree of stress, some professions are more stressful, both physically and emotionally, than others. Here are some painful jobs that serve up a little “ow” along with a paycheck.
Painful Jobs:Child Care Provider
As a caretaker for six children, Cutshall’s job is physically demanding — two of the children she cares for weigh 13 pounds each, while another weighs more than 20 pounds. Muscle strain and injury is common in this profession, as well as other jobs that require heavy lifting, says Marshall Bedder, MD, a pain medicine specialist and director of interventional pain management at Pacific Medical Centers in Seattle. However, a few precautions can help prevent or minimize the chances of getting hurt.
“What we try to teach everyone is good body mechanics,” says Dr. Bedder. “Whether you’re lifting bricks of gold or children, you should do it the same way. Drop to one knee and keep your back straight, and hold the heavy weight as close to you as possible and push up with your legs rather than stoop over.”
Cutshall says she also tries to minimize the physical strain of her job by doing as much prep work as she can ahead of time, such as preparing meals, and by stretching in the mornings to limber up before the workday begins. “During naptime for the children, I will use ice packs if needed, or just sit down and rest for a few minutes,” she says
Painful Jobs:Truck Driver
On the surface, driving a big rig might seem like a physically un-stressful job, but sitting behind the wheel of a truck for hours at a time can be damaging to the back, says Brian Steinmetz, DO, a physiatrist with Maryland Spine Center in Baltimore. “Not only that, the vibration of the truck is also associated with disc injuries to the back,” Dr. Steinmetz says.
Truck drivers may also suffer from lifestyle-related illnesses like being overweight as a result of poor diets while on the road. This, in turn, can cause even more strain on the back. To help prevent injury, drivers should take care to be physically active during their scheduled stops. “Don’t just stop and have a doughnut,” Bedder says. “Stop, maybe do some calisthenics and other activities, and definitely do some stretching.” While on the road, you might wear a back brace to maintain good sitting posture and help recover from strains. Back home, physical therapy is an option for better body mechanics, too.
Painful Jobs:Police Officer
Representing the long arm of the law is a noble profession, but it’s also risky, physically speaking. Most of the pain experienced by law enforcement officers tends to be from acute injuries — fractures, tendon damage, cuts from being assaulted, and the like. Because these injuries often can’t be avoided, the best option may be to take time off or switch to a less-demanding position until the pain subsides a bit.
“Most employers participate with the worker’s compensation system,” Steinmetz says. “There are going to be accommodations and even financial benefits while you’re recovering from your injury to pay at least some portion of your salary. Sometimes you’ll get restrictions to lighter duties, where you can do sedentary-type work until you’re feeling better.”
Police officers may also experience chronic pain, like back injuries from carrying bulky tools of the trade around their hips. “They’re wearing duty belts now with more equipment than they ever have — batons, radios, handcuffs — and you can see all that weight sitting on their hips and back,” Bedder says. To help minimize injuries, officers can try to switch to a duty belt that has suspenders, which distributes weight more evenly across the back. If pain still occurs, the best course of action is to consult a health care professional, who can provide guidance on how to reduce discomfort, manage pain at work, and restore as much function as possible.
“You need to find that right niche that keeps you going to work and doesn’t prolong your symptom duration,” Steinmetz says.
Whether it’s handling a heavy fire hose, providing first aid, or rescuing people from burning buildings, firefighters’ duties leave them open to of all sorts of painful injuries. Though acute injuries like smoke inhalation and burns are well-known possibilities, Steinmetz says, chronic pain from lifting heavy things on the fly is an often-overlooked risk. “You’re lifting and dragging debris and victims,” he says. “And as our population becomes more obese, you’re potentially talking about larger victims. In the heat of the moment, you’re not always thinking about your lifting technique — you’re worried about getting someone to safety.”
When possible, smart lifting and carrying approaches should be used, as well as weight belts to keep your back straight and strength training to develop your muscles. If the situation allows for it, asking a partner to help with the load can also be smart.
Emotional pain is also a risk of being a firefighter; several studies have concluded that people in this profession have an increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. If either of these conditions occurs, many treatments are available, including psychotherapy and antidepressant medications.
Painful Jobs:Sports Coach
Athletes certainly have physically demanding jobs, but their mentors on the sidelines are under physical strain, too, like Regis Scafe (pictured above, bottom left), the head football coach at John Carroll University outside of Cleveland. During football season, Scafe is on his feet for about three hours a day, an especially painful task given the osteoarthritis in his knees. “Training camp was tough,” Scafe says. “It kind of wears on you, doing all that.”
Coaches and people in other professions that require long periods of standing, such as hospital workers and salespeople, are at increased risk for back and knee pain. For these workers, changing the ergonomics of the work environment can provide some benefit. “If you’re going to be standing all the time, having a soft, cushiony area to stand on can help,” Bedder says. Shoe insoles that provide a bit of extra padding have also been proven to be effective at reducing discomfort.
Scafe says he’s also found relief by wearing a lightweight, adjustable brace, which provides additional support during long days on the football field. “I started to use it at practice, and it feels much better now,” he says. “It takes pressure off your knee on bad days.”
Is it possible to hurt yourself with too many guitar riffs? The answer is yes. Many musicians, especially professional ones, develop overuse injuries from long hours practicing and performing. Some develop tendinitis, which is inflammation in the soft tissue around the muscles and bones. If left untreated, it can become tendinosis, characterized by a thickening of the tendon.
“It usually involves upper extremities,” says Mara Vucich, DO, a physiatrist at the Maryland Spine Center. “It’s related to the prolonged positions required for the instrument and repeated use of the upper arm or hand. They’re spending hours in these positions and taxing a certain muscle or joint.”
Musicians who overtax their muscles may also develop focal dystonia, which is a neurological condition marked by involuntary, sometimes painful muscle contractions. To help relieve muscles, rest is the best treatment. “You don’t have to stop playing the instrument altogether, but make sure you’re getting rest time,” Dr. Vucich says. “It’s important to allow the tissues time to heal and recover.
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