NEW YORK | Thu Mar 24, 2011 2:28pm EDT  - Many people with arthritis have periodic difficulties on the job, but the problems might not make them less productive, a new study suggests.

And in many cases, simple changes in the workplace can be helpful.

It's known that people with arthritis often deal with work limitations. A U.S. government study found that one-third of working-age Americans with arthritis said their condition interfered with their jobs.

But the new study, which followed nearly 500 working people with arthritis, found that while work difficulties are common, they are not constant.

Over four and a half years, three-quarters of the study participants reported occasional, rather than continuous, difficulty with work. Only 9 of every hundred people in the study had consistently severe difficulties -- the types of problems that might prevent them from getting their job tasks done, or force them to cut down on work hours.

Work limitation due to arthritis has "tended to be discussed as something that is constant. But I think it's more episodic," said Dr. Monique A.M. Gignac, an associate professor at the University of Toronto in Canada, and the lead researcher on the study.

And that, she said in an interview, is important for employers, insurers and workers with arthritis to know. "There is a belief that people with arthritis are often a liability in the workplace, but that's not the case," Gignac said.

Still, many workers with arthritic conditions do, at some point, have problems at work. In this study, the most common issues included problems with lifting, carrying, kneeling and standing for long periods -- all experienced by anywhere from one-half to three-quarters of study participants.

When it came to easing those problems, workers most often took simple measures, like using "gadgets" or furniture changes to make their work easier.

Having a better chair, a stool under the feet or a special computer keyboard, Gignac noted, can be helpful. So too, she said, can cost-free steps like organizing your desk to put everything in easy reach, or getting up periodically to move and stretch.

"There are things you can do to sustain your energy and reduce pain," Gignac said.

Relatively few people in the study took more significant steps, like changing their work schedule. Over the course of the study, no more than 17 of every hundred people made schedule changes.

The findings, reported in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, are based on surveys of 490 working adults with either osteoarthritis -- the common "wear-and-tear" form of joint problems often associated with aging or heavy sports activities -- or inflammatory arthritis.

Most people in that second group had rheumatoid arthritis, a disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the joints.

The participants worked in a range of fields, including transportation, sales, teaching and business, and were surveyed four times over the four and a half years of the study.

The fact that people's work limitations waxed and waned over time may be due to the nature of the arthritis itself, according to Gignac. For some people, changes in treatment or their work might have made a difference.

Gignac suggested that workers with arthritis symptoms act sooner rather than later -- which, first of all, means seeing a doctor to get a diagnosis and start treatment.

Some people might be reluctant to tell their employer they have arthritis, and that is a "personal decision," Gignac noted. But she also pointed out that there are many people in the workforce with arthritis or other chronic health conditions.

"There are a lot of you," she said. "You are not alone."

In workplaces with a human resources department, Gignac noted, people with arthritis can anonymously ask about any job accommodations that are available to them.

And if people are reluctant to bring up their health at work, she said, they can also ask their doctors for advice on work adjustments that might make their jobs easier.

SOURCE: bit.ly/gxVCK8 Arthritis Care & Research, online February 25, 2011.

© 2010 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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