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Manage your chronic pain in veterinary practice
Pull the thorn out of the lion's paw and learn to manage your chronic pain in practice.
THINKSTOCK/JOEL SARTOREMost of us have a difficult day occasionally at work because we're ill or we're suffering from some kind of minor discomfort. These days can be tough to get through, and they leave you counting the minutes until it's time to leave. Imagine if most, or even all, of your work days went like this.
Unfortunately, it is a reality for many Americans and causes frustration for team members and loss of productivity for employers. Although some conditions are covered under disability benefits, many forms of chronic pain are excluded from coverage. This can be stressful for workers who are either forced to go to work and suffer through the day or stay at home with the loss of income-or even risk losing their job.
Chronic pain is essentially defined as any pain lasting longer than six months, but many suffer through a lifetime with the ailment. Some of the most common syndromes associated with chronic pain include back pain, migraines and headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome and various neuropathies and musculoskeletal disorders.
So what can you do?
It can be difficult to bring up these problems with a supervisor in the workplace, but if you suffer from chronic pain it's important to plan a discussion. Your manager may be able to offer opportunities to improve the situation. And when you're more comfortable and confident it will likely boost your work performance and benefit your practice.
For example, your manager can work with you to adjust your work schedule to accommodate doctor's visits or therapy sessions. Your manager may also be able to make the workplace more ergonomically friendly-especially if you suffer from musculoskeletal pain. Simple tools including phone headsets, hand and foot rests, keyboard trays and specialized office chairs are important to improve the ergonomics of the office.
It's also important to listen to the messages your body gives you. You may need to consider adjusting your work hours, whether this means cutting back or spreading your time out more throughout the week. When you include your managers in your experience, this can open the door to more accommodations, and you will likely feel less self-conscious.
When I battled daily migraines for years, it helped to tell coworkers that if I seemed off-I could not think of the right word or had a foggy brain-it was because of the migraine. I discovered this was something they rarely even noticed. But getting it off my chest made me less insecure.
1. Learn to say no
If you are taking on an extra shift or extra duties outside of work, it may make struggles with chronic pain more difficult. Everyone needs rest outside of work. But for those struggling with chronic conditions, they may need extra time to relax. Make sure to schedule in time to do something non-work related every day, whether it's exercising, reading a book or participating in another hobby.
Take breathers and stretch breaks at work whenever possible. Depending on the condition, it can be helpful to walk around or stretch your muscles periodically. Also keep in mind, with all forms of chronic pain, keeping your stress levels down may help. When you begin to feel stress, taking a walk around the building and getting fresh air or going to the break room for a few minutes of peace can help your mental state-and may even alleviate some of your pain.
2 Look for outside relief
Another good option is to find an exercise outlet outside of work. Being able to take time for yourself and keep yourself fit and healthy is important for everyone, but especially for those with chronic pain. This can also help alleviate your stress.
Getting started can be a big challenge when it's hard to catch a pain-free moment to get going. Just keep in mind that exercising may help improve many forms of chronic pain, as long as you follow your doctor's specific recommendations.
It's important to also be cautious of the common pitfalls of chronic pain. Unfortunately, with long-term management of chronic pain comes hyperalgesia-or increased pain sensitivity, drug tolerance and even addiction to pain medications. If you find yourself becoming dependent on pain medication, having it alter your work performance or noticing an increase in the amount you take on a daily basis, it may be time for an intervention.
Thankfully many workplaces sponsor Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which can help employees use local recovery groups and counseling resources. Addiction is being recognized more so as a disease that should be fairly treated just as any other. And the stigma that follows is diminishing. If you work at a practice with a reasonable human resources department, you should be able to talk about these concerns. Ultimately, good employers will see value in their employees and respect their need for assistance.
3 Reach out to manage your pain
In lieu of, or at least in addition to, pain medications, alternative modes of pain management exist to help you manage chronic pain. Physical therapy, yoga, pilates, massage therapy, chiropractics, guided imagery, biofeedback and dietary changes are just a few. It may be worth investigating other resources outside of Western medicine when you feel you have run out of treatment options.
4 Take time to look
Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a reevaluation of your line of work and time to discover a better fit. For example, a technician with multiple sclerosis may eventually need to look for opportunities in teaching or the sales industry if he or she can only perform physical labor in a minimal capacity.
When you look for new ways to work in the profession you love, you may also find new avenues to accomplish new goals in your career. It's important to recognize signs you feel locked in a job where physical limitations prevent you from achieving your full potential-and look for new areas to grow and maintain financial security and match your physical capabilities. If you can work with your manager to embrace the new direction in your career as the field grows, you may be surprised how many alternative options there are to performing on the floor.
Practice management, research, teaching and human resources are just a few of the many growing opportunities for veterinary professionals seeking less hands-on work.
Remind yourself that you are hardly alone in the struggle to balance work, life, family and chronic pain. Although it can be frustrating to have this hurdle invade your ability to be happy and successful in your career, these steps may help you manage the disease's role in your life. Reach out to the numerous resources now available for management and support. Be proactive and don't waste time just pushing through. Grabbing a hold of your chronic pain and using better management skills will help you let go of the thorns that are holding you back and reach for a healthier, happier you.
Oriana Scislowicz, BS, LVT, VDT, is a technician in Richmond, Va.