Arthritis pain can become a major problem for those working in almost any type of job, says Doreen Stiskal-Galisewski, PhD, chair of the department of physical therapy at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

“There was a woman, a secretary, who was working here in our office who had tremendous pain in her thumb,” recalls Stiskal-Galisewski. “I said, ‘What are you doing that might be causing the pain?’ She just said she was doing normal stuff. I realized she was just using a stapler, squeezing a stapler.”

Even ordinary office tasks, like typing at a keyboard, can trigger joint pain, she says. “Force over a small area increases pressure on those joints. Over time, increases irritation and leads to more pain.”

New Tactics for Managing Pain

While health care professionals once encouraged patients to either try to ignore the pain, learn to live with it or to avoid any activity that might trigger it, now they realize that a different approach is necessary, Stiskal-Galisewski says.

New guidelines from the World Health Organization, the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, encourage caregivers to look at how arthritis pain is interfering with the professional and personal tasks that are vital to a person’s life, and how to manage pain to make those tasks possible again.

“We’re better at helping patients now,” she says. “We guide them to ask themselves, ‘Is my pain at a manageable level so I can continue activity? Or is it at a critical point where I need to call the doctor?.’ ”

It’s important to communicate to your doctor what tasks are not only necessary for your work or life, but which ones you enjoy doing, activities that add joy to your life, says Stiskal-Galisewski.

Making Adaptations

Osteoarthritis in her thumbs made work as a bartender challenging for Debra Rand, 55. The condition also affected other tasks that she once took for granted. “Almost any movement using my hands triggers the pain,” she says. “Opening jars, opening doors, holding a blow dryer. It’s the little things!”

An avid gardener as well, Rand, who lives in Atlanta, finds that many tasks related to her hobby also cause hand pain. “It seems like I’m always fighting with locks or other things. When your hands hurt, you really notice it. Opening the jar of fertilizer for my roses – I have to squeeze, push and turn it – that’s the worst. Those things are awful.”

Although she takes NSAIDs to help control her pain and inflammation, Rand credits a year of physical therapy with teaching her to modify her movements and use assistive devices to help complete necessary tasks at her job, like opening wine bottles. She often wears braces to provide more support for her thumb on the job, and uses jar openers and bottle grips each time she has to open something to make a cocktail.

Assistive devices are a necessity, she says. “Having arthritis in my hands for the past two years, I have gone through two pairs of kitchen shears, because I’m always having to cut things open,” she says.