10 Tips for Getting Through the Workday With AS
With more of us working from home than ever (#pandemic), many people with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) are facing new or different challenges related to balancing their jobs and health needs. After all, this chronic inflammatory disease can come with symptoms like back pain, stiffness, fatigue, and more—all of which can make your workday feel like a major struggle. Here, we’ll share 10 expert work-from-home tips to help you conserve energy, improve your desk setup, and more.
Consult an Occupational Therapist
If you’re finding it difficult to manage your workday due to AS symptoms, we’ve got some good news: There are people—called occupational therapists (OT)—whose entire job it is to help you solve these types of problems. “An occupational therapy practitioner can work with you and provide individual recommendations, including strategies and adaptations,” explains Karen Jacobs, OT, OTR, occupational therapist and clinical professor in the department of occupational therapy at Boston University. They also provide home assessments—even remotely via telehealth in the time of COVID-19—to help you optimize your living space and assess for safety.
Make an Activity Log
The task of improving work life with AS can be overwhelming—so a good place to start is to track your activities to help identify snags in your current routine, says Jacobs. An OT will often do this with you, but you can also try it on your own by simply writing down what you do throughout the course of the day (make breakfast, take dog out, Zoom call for work, etc.) and any corresponding symptoms. Aim to log your 24-hour day for a full week, she says: “The more detail you give, the better.” Then you can look back and pinpoint times or activities where issues arise. “[You can note] where you’re starting to have discomfort, where you need to conserve energy and protect your joints, or identify symptoms to address.”
Ease Into the Day
AS symptoms can often make it difficult to be at your best first thing in the morning. “People with AS have inflammatory back pain, which is typically worse with rest and improves with activity,” explains Nicole Cotter, M.D., a board-certified rheumatologist at UCHealth Rheumatology Clinic in Steamboat Springs, CO. “People with AS may need more time in the morning upon waking to get moving and ready for the day.” Plan for extra time in the morning before work to limber up your joints, she suggests. That might mean setting your alarm 30 minutes to an hour earlier than usual.
Take Lots of Breaks
More people than ever are working from home these days, which means less built-in movement. “Movement is important for people with AS throughout the workday,” Dr. Cotter says. “Sitting at a desk for extended periods of time can worsen back pain and stiffness, so it is recommended that people with AS take frequent breaks to get up, move and stretch.” Try setting an alarm at regular intervals—like every 30 minutes—to remind you to take a break for stretching or exercise to help combat your symptoms, says Jacobs.
Optimize Your Computer Space
If you’re staring at a computer all day, taking steps to make your workspace more AS-friendly can go a long way to fight pain and stiffness. For example, one way to increase comfort on your back and neck is to raise your computer so that you’re looking down only slightly at your screen (about 15 degrees) and your neck is aligned with the rest of your spine, Jacobs says. You can buy lifts to elevate your computer monitor or laptop (like this option from Amazon, $29.99), but a stack of books does the job, too.
Get a Comfortable Chair
Another important way to improve your workspace setup when you have AS is to make sure you’re sitting comfortably, says Jacobs—an uncomfortable seat will only exacerbate low back pain and stiffness. When searching for a chair, look for something with good lumbar support, Jacobs suggests. Make sure you’re sitting all the way back in your chair so you’re getting the most support possible, she adds. If you’re not in the market to buy a new chair, consider adding a lumbar support pillow to an existing one (like this top-rated option from Amazon, $34.95).
Plan Ahead to Save Energy
Conserving energy during the workday is huge when you have AS—especially because fatigue is a common symptom, per the Spondylitis Association of America. Planning ahead can help, says Jacobs—for example, maybe you can schedule your meetings around an afternoon break for a nap, or make meals in advance so you’re not expending precious energy in the middle of your workday preparing lunch and snacks. “The key is to keep organized and listen to your body throughout the day,” she says.
Eat Healthy to Fight Inflammation
Speaking of meals, the foods you put into your body can impact how you feel throughout the workday, too. For example, Dr. Cotter recommends people with AS follow an anti-inflammatory diet. That means eating lots of fruits and veggies, beans, olive oil, seeds and nuts, and fish with omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon and tuna, according to the Arthritis Foundation. You’ll also want to avoid too much salt and processed foods, which can be linked to inflammation. So instead of reaching for those potato chips, try a handful of almonds for your afternoon energy boost.
Take Steps to De-Stress
If your job is particularly stressful, you may find it even harder to manage your AS symptoms. “Stress can have a negative impact on inflammation,” explains Dr. Cotter. “Stress can also perpetuate muscle tension, which can worsen musculoskeletal pain. It is, therefore, not surprising that people with inflammatory diseases feel worse during times of stress.” While you can’t always eliminate stress from your job, you can take steps to manage it—for example, getting enough sleep at night, exercising regularly, and adopting a daily relaxation routine such as mindfulness meditation, she suggests.
Talk With Your Boss and Know Your Rights
If you’re concerned about your AS symptoms interfering with your ability to do your job, you may also consider talking with your boss or HR department to see what types of accommodations they may be able to provide. Jacobs suggests getting familiar with the reasonable accommodations section of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so that you know what your rights are in the workplace. Or reaching out to the Job Accommodation Network, an organization that offers free guidance on disability related employment issues. “I refer clients to this resource for ideas on accommodations and changes in the workplace and advice for speaking to their employer,” she says.
The Bottom Line on Working With AS
Many people continue to work with AS. The key is to be proactive, says Jacobs—don’t wait until you’re really struggling to get your job done to seek help. That might mean reaching out to an OT for personalized help or speaking with your doctor to better manage your AS symptoms with medication. Living a healthy lifestyle overall—focusing on things like diet, exercise, sleep, and relaxation—are also key. Don’t underestimate the power of small changes to your routine to improve your ability to get through the workday with AS: “Balancing one’s lifestyle will help to balance one’s job,” says Dr. Cotter.
Anti-Inflammatory Diet Info: The Arthritis Foundation. (2020.) “Anti-Inflammatory Diet Do's and Don'ts.” arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/nutrition/anti-inflammatory/anti-inflammatory-diet
Symptoms of AS: Spondylitis Association of America. (2020.) “Most Common Symptoms.” spondylitis.org/about-spondylitis/types-of-spondylitis/ankylosing-spondylitis/symptoms/