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Arthritis & The Workplace

From workplace ergonomics, to understanding your rights in the workplace as a person living with arthritis, there are many important things to familiarize yourself with when it comes to working with arthritis.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Relief

Try these exercises to relieve the wrist pain of carpal tunnel syndrome.

By Donna Rae Siegfried

Finding relief from the wrist pain of carpal tunnel syndrome isn't just a personal matter; it's an economic issue. Not only does carpal tunnel syndrome lead to sore wrists and hands, and sudden, sharp shots of pain up the forearm, it also tanks productivity at work and – because of difficulties grasping and holding – increases the risk of dropping heavy objects. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor says carpal tunnel syndrome is the cause of nearly half of all missed work time. Fortunately, some simple carpal tunnel exercises can help.

Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

“There are numerous causes of [carpal tunnel syndrome], however, and several conditions imitate it,” says Eric Matteson, MD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Causes range from injuries or arthritis to chronic diseases, such as diabetes or hypothyroidism, to temporary conditions, such as pregnancy. So how can you tell if you are developing it?

At first, you may feel your fingers and hands are weak, numb, tingling or burning. That’s when you need to start treating the symptoms to keep carpal tunnel syndrome from progressing and becoming a debilitating problem that requires surgery.

What To Do If You Have Carpal Tunnel Symptoms

Carpal tunnel relief is possible. “If you have hand or wrist pain and numbness, see your doctor to find out the true cause and evaluate treatment options,” says Dr. Matteson. If it turns out carpal tunnel syndrome is the likely cause, your doctor may have you wear a splint, take regular breaks to rest your hand, give you a shot of cortisone in the wrist, or advise you to use a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to relieve the swelling and pain.

If your hand and wrist get sore after using a computer mouse, set an alarm on your computer to go off every 15 minutes as a reminder to lift your hand off the mouse, wiggle your fingers yourself and stretch your hand muscles. Also, try a few hand exercises to improve blood flow to the wrist and hand.

Carpal Tunnel Exercises

  1. Make a fist. Slide your fingers upward until they are pointing up straight. Repeat five to 10 times.
  2. Make a fist. Release your hand and fan out your fingers, stretching them as far as you can. Repeat five to 10 times.

Flexible Work Arrangements

Having the right schedule can make you a more productive employee.

"Work less and achieve more" seems counterintuitive, but a Michigan State University study says it’s the real deal. Researchers found that companies that allow flexible schedules and reduced workloads experience fewer turnovers, greater development and even reduced costs.

“Many employers today are rethinking traditional job arrangements in order to retain good employees with health conditions who can benefit from a shorter workday and less stress, parents who want to spend more time with their kids and people with long commutes,” explains Lynn Berger, a career counselor in New York City.

These trends reflect today’s transitioning work force, says Barry Asin, chief analyst of Staffing Industry Analysts Inc., an employment firm based in Los Altos, Calif. “Many older baby boomers wish to keep working rather than retire, but they don’t necessarily want to maintain a 9-to-5 schedule,” he says.

If you want to scale back, Berger suggests planning your approach carefully. Her advice:

  1. Brainstorm. What’s your ideal position? On what areas are you willing to compromise? Would you work 40 hours a week if your employer allowed you to telecommute? Would you turn down a promotion that required occasional weekend work?
  2. Play the numbers game. In most cases, less time on the job means lower pay and fewer benefits, such as health insurance, disability and employer-paid 401(k) contributions. Thirty hours per week is usually the cutoff.
  3. Put it in writing. Create a document that outlines every detail - from how many hours you would work to how you would communicate with clients and supervisors to how your new position would be evaluated.
  4. Keep it positive. “Don’t deliver any ultimatums,” Berger advises. “Instead, say, ‘This is a situation that could be beneficial to both of us, and here’s why.’” Then be prepared to offer several reasons why the arrangement would be good for both you and your company.”

Finding a Job and Working With Arthritis

Show an employer your strengths – and get the best out of yourself and your job.

By Camille Noe Pagán

Work. It’s good for your bottom line, but the benefits hardly stop there. Research shows that employment boosts confidence and improves mobility. One survey found that people with osteoarthritis (OA) who worked reported less pain than those with OA who did not.

Still, moderate to severe arthritis can create work hurdles even for those able to hold a regular job. A 2010 study in The Journal of Rheumatology found that adults with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) were 53 percent less likely to be employed than those without it. Other studies have found that OA can slash productivity and increase pain in workers with physically demanding positions.

Of course, millions of Americans with RA, OA and arthritis-related conditions such as fibromyalgia have thriving careers. The key to overcoming some of the hurdles, says Saralynn Allaire, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, “is not in knowing your limitations – most people with chronic disease are all too familiar with those – but instead learning about and utilizing the myriad resources available to help you.” Here, experts suggest how to do that in three common scenarios.

Challenge #1

If you’ve recently left a position – voluntarily or not – because your condition kept you from fulfilling its demands:

“Be honest [with yourself] about the situation,”says Jackson Rainer, PhD, director of clinical training for the doctoral psychology program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. Did you spend too much time on your feet, causing pain and fatigue that made you inefficient? Did the office frown on the time you took off for doctor visits? “Identifying what was wrong can help you move forward,” says Rainer, who specializes in psychotherapy for individuals with chronic and life-threatening illness. “It can be hard to admit your arthritis had a negative impact but having an accurate self-perception puts you back in control of your job search.”

Come up with a list of must-haves. Do you need close access to a restroom? Flexible work hours? Some of these may be highlighted in job descriptions; others might require some detective work during the interview and hiring process. Make sure to get what you need so you can thrive professionally, physically and emotionally at your next job.

Lead with your strengths. By law, you’re not required to disclose your medical condition – and you should not bring it up during interviews, advises Robert Hellmann, a certified career coach and adjunct professor at New York University in New York City. “Instead, talk about the positive things you bring to the table and why you’d be a valuable asset to the team,” he says. “Even if your symptoms are visible, you don’t want to convey the message that your arthritis is who you are or give a potential employer reason to wonder if you can do your job.”

Challenge #2

If you’re concerned about post-operative pain or being less productive than before:

Prepare with a physical therapist. “Give your physical therapist a detailed description of your day-to-day job tasks, and set goals and guidelines for being able to do those tasks again,” advises physical therapist Debbie Feldman, PhD, professor at the University of Montreal School of Rehabilitation. “Preparing your body physically reduces mental fears. That will give you the confidence to forge ahead when you return to the office.”

Go slowly. Although you may want to throw yourself back into work to show that you’re a team player, “Don’t try to work through significant pain or pretend you’re at 100 percent when you’re not,” says Edmond Cleeman, MD, orthopaedic surgeon and assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Consider working half-days your first week back. “If your doctor recommends using a cane or another assistive device, use it. Ice your joint if it’s sore, and make sure you get up and move around every half-hour to reduce the risk of blood clots and stiffness,” he says.

Adjust your workspace. Ergonomic tools and accessories can make your workspace more comfortable, so you can be more productive. You might also want to hire an occupational therapist (OT) who can assess the physical and psychological components of your workplace and suggest adjustments and equipment. Some larger corporations offer this to workers, but employers are not required by law to hire an OT, even for disabled employees. To find a therapist, visit the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Challenge #3

If you have a need or desire to re-enter the job market:

Get your mind in shape. You want to show employers you know your stuff, even if you haven’t been working. “Read up on your industry. Attend a seminar. If you went to college, use the free career counseling services offered through your alumni association,” advises workplace consultant Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “That way, when you go on job interviews or meet someone who could be a work contact, you’re able to show you’re up to speed on your chosen career field.”

Get on a schedule. If you haven’t been on a regular schedule, start now so you’re not overwhelmed when you begin work. “Start and end your day at the same time and give yourself time slots for specific duties,” advises Langerud. For example, search for jobs in the morning; have lunch and take a walk; then network and reach out to contacts in the afternoon.

Rethink your résumé. “I tell everyone” – even those who have been out of work for a while – “to start résumés, cover letters and even conversations by showcasing the experience that’s most relevant, not most recent,” says Hellmann. No experience to highlight? “Contact local nonprofits related to your area of interest and say, ‘I can’t write you a check, but I’m really good at X, Y and Z. Is there a project I can help you with?’” says Langerud. Not only does volunteering give you references and a body of work to show potential employers, it also eases you back into employment.

Ergonomic Workplace Tips

Follow these strategies to reduce the stress on painful joints at work.

By Terrie Heinrich Rizzo

If you spend most of your work day behind a desk, then being comfortable is key to keeping you productive – and pain free!

Workplace ergonomics experts suggest following these helpful techniques to get you through your work day as pain free as possible -- from how to sit correctly and how often to move to getting the best fit from your office furniture. In addition, you'll find a list of ergonomic workplace products recommended with your comfort in mind.

General Strategies 

Repeated tasks performed when seated contribute to stress of the neck, shoulders, hands, wrists and even the legs, especially when you slouch. Anyone who spends several hours seated on the job should use ergonomic caution and follow a few rules.

Move around. Get up and walk around every 20 to 30 minutes, and take frequent one- to two-minute micro-breaks. Micro-breaks aren’t breaks from work but breaks from using a particular set of frequently used muscles and joints, such as regularly resting your fingers when typing. Stand, stretch, or do different tasks during micro-breaks.

Keep feet flat on the floor. If your feet don’t reach, use a footrest.

Position your computer monitor so that your eyes are level with the top of the screen (oversize monitors are exceptions). The center should be at 15 degrees below your line of sight and approximately an arm’s length away. Raise or lower it as necessary. If you wear bifocals, check with your therapist about lowering your monitor to avoid crooking your neck.

Use a document holder. Use this device to raise materials to eye level, rather than bending your neck toward the desk.

If you have an older chair without lumbar support, replace it or try using a small pillow or tightly rolled towel to relieve pressure on your lower back. Be sure the towel isn’t thick enough that it forces you to lean forward, creating even more strain.

A Chair That Fits 

Alan Hedge, PhD, professor of ergonomics and director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Program at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., recommends these tips to help find a chair that fits.

Swivel and roll. To minimize joint strain, a swivel chair with a five-point base and wheels is a must for both stability and ease of movement.

Make it fit. For the right fit, Hedge advises using the 1-inch seat rule. When sitting back, there should be at least a 1-inch gap between the edge of the seat and the backs of your knees, and the seat of the chair should be at least 1-inch wider than your hips and thighs. The chair’s back should be wide enough for your back, but not too wide to restrict arm movements, such as reaching 90 degrees to your sides.

Rest your back. Seat backs should have both a height-adjustable lumbar support to fit the curve of your lower back snugly and a tilt feature that allows you to move easily while being supported at all positions. Hedge says chairs with headrests also are helpful for people who need to reduce neck and shoulder strain.

Support your arms. Be sure your chair’s armrests are adjustable and set so forearms are supported when elbows are bent at 90 degrees and wrists are straight.

Get control. A chair should have adjustments for seat height, seat tilt, backrest height and tilt, and armrest positions – and you should be able to easily reach and adjust all levers.

Workplace Rights for Employees With Disabilities

Learn how to get "reasonable accommodations” on the job if you have arthritis.

By Camille Noe Pagan

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers with 15 or more employees are legally obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled workers. A reasonable accommodation is something that helps the worker perform his or her job, such as a specific tool or a change in hours, but does not impede the business – for example, by causing undue financial hardship to the employer, says Saralynn Allaire, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. 

Research shows the majority of effective accommodations are no-cost or less than $500 – such as a different desk chair or keyboard, or voice recognition software. To ask for an accommodation follow these guidelines.

See your physician. Your doctor must diagnose you as having a disability. Chances are, if you have limited mobility, significant pain or other moderate to severe arthritis symptoms, you qualify. “People shy from the term ‘disabled,’ but it gives you legal rights,” notes James M. Herzog, a New York-based occupational therapist who specializes in return-to-work issues. (Note that this is not the same as qualifying for Social Security Disability Insurance, which requires a diagnosis specifying that you cannot work.)

Contact the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). “JAN is a free, confidential and personalized service provided by the U.S. Department of Labor,” says Beth Loy, a principal consultant at JAN. “We help educate people about the Americans with Disabilities Act, brainstorm about what accommodations may help them perform their job better and help them request changes from their employers.”

Boost your odds. Put your request in writing and take it to your direct supervisor; if you receive resistance, consider going to human resources. “Focus on how your request will help your employer – for example, by increasing your productivity and helping you bring even better results,” says Herzog. “Research shows that many workplace changes actually make the environment more functional for all employees,” he adds. “For example, replacing door knobs with door levers makes doors easier for everyone to open.”

Get a second opinion. If your employer denies your request and you suspect you are being discriminated against, contact JAN or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC investigates charges of discrimination, settles charges and files lawsuits against employers on behalf of people who have been discriminated against because of a disability, race, religion or age – meaning it can act on your behalf so you don’t have to face a discriminatory employer on your own.