The prevalence of chronic pain and its effect on people’s lives has spurred many a book, movie, and artistic work chronicling life with pain and its related difficulties. And chronic pain in pop culture isn’t limited to works of art—many celebrities also manage pain related to fibromyalgia, back injuries, and other conditions.
Although stories of people navigating the trials of chronic pain aren’t extremely common, they’re becoming more so as awareness about the condition increases. In 2014 and 2015, several movies and documentaries are set to release that explore related issues.
Here are some of the more popular instances of chronic pain in pop culture.
Celebrities with chronic pain
Fibromyalgia and other disorders are the great equalizer, striking everybody equally, no matter who you are.
Famous people with the condition include Sinead O’Connor, the Grammy award-winning songstress. O’Connor took a break from stardom after first developing fibromyalgia to learn her pain patterns and figure out how to manage them, according to Prevention magazine. One way O’Connor managed chronic pain was to lower her expectations in life with the knowledge that nothing is perfect and that’s okay.
Another example of chronic pain in pop culture is Montel Williams, who has multiple sclerosis. Williams suffered from undiagnosed symptoms for ten years before doctors finally diagnosed his condition. Williams used the condition as inspiration, founding the Montel Williams Foundation, which raises money for multiple sclerosis research, and writing eight books. One of those books, Body Change, outlines the series of exercises Williams uses to manage chronic pain.
Famous actor George Clooney also suffers from chronic back pain that stems from a work-related injury. While filming Syriana in 2005, Clooney hit his head and tore a portion of the spine responsible for containing spinal fluid. After the accident, Clooney underwent surgery to place bolts in his spine, but the pain never fully disappeared.
From rock stars to actors and beyond, chronic pain in pop culture occurs more frequently than you might think.
Books about chronic pain
Many people turn to writing as a way of sharing their most painful experiences, hoping to simultaneously sublimate them and help others going through the same circumstances.
Lynne Greenberg’s The Body Broken is one such memoir. Greenberg’s pain troubles began at the age of 19, when she emerged from a horrible car accident with a broken neck. Her body ultimately healed, and Greenberg lived a normal life for many years until one day, pain mysteriously overtook her body. The memoir follows Greenberg as she navigates the health care system and works to reconstruct her life despite debilitating pain.
Battle for Grace is another memoir and appearance of chronic pain in pop culture. The tale follows author Cynthia Toussaint after she sustains a career-ending injury during a ballet rehearsal, abruptly ending her dreams of fame. The injury led Toussaint to develop a chronic pain condition that mystified doctors for 13 years. Finally, she was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, later developing fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
For five years after the accident, Toussaint lacked even the ability to speak, and for ten, she was bedridden.
Compounding her physical pain, Toussaint persevered through frustrating discussions with her insurance company, which told her the pain was all in her head. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Toussaint fought back by advocating for chronic pain issues in the California state legislature and creating a non-profit, For Grace, that helps women in pain.
Movies portraying chronic pain
Chronic pain in pop culture also appears in movies. Stay tuned for 2015’s Cake, an independent film starring Jennifer Aniston. In the movie, Aniston’s character, Claire Simmons, meets a woman named Nina in a chronic pain support group. Nina commits suicide, and Simmons starts investigating the incident. In the process, the details of Claire’s own tragic life emerge.
For a non-fiction take, watch Pain Matters, a Discovery Channel documentary exploring the condition that affects more U.S. adults than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined. The movie cites the Institute of Medicine’s theory that posits chronic pain’s incredible prevalence proves that it’s not properly managed or treated.
The documentary investigates the condition’s defining characteristics, its impact on people and society, and what pain management will look like in the future. It explores these complex issues through telling the stories of six people living with chronic pain, including a U.S. Navy veteran and championship hockey player.
Part of chronic pain’s complexity is the difficulty for medical professionals to measure it and find treatment plants that are both targeted to the individual and work effectively, notes the documentary.
If you’ve already heard enough about chronic pain definitions and the tribulations of living with it, consider watching This Might Hurt, a documentary about the mind-body connection with chronic pain and ways of healing it.
The movie follows several chronic pain patients as they go through a medical program. In it, “they learn the emotional roots of their suffering, and make astonishing discoveries about the mind and body, and the elusive nature of pain,” according to the movie’s website.
For an inspiring tale of overcoming pain and achieving great things, watch The Abby Spirit, which follows now-successful actress Abby Wathen as she overcomes chronic pain related to reflex sympathetic dystrophy while pursuing her dreams of acting in New York City. The film drives home the idea that the strength derived from overcoming the challenge of chronic pain gave Wathen the personal power necessary to navigate the difficult road to stardom.
Television characters with chronic pain
Chronic pain in pop culture isn’t limited to movies and books; it also includes television. House MD follows the exploits of an acerbic, free-thinking doctor whose chronic pain has him walking with a cane. House’s unusual perspectives have earned him a degree of notoriety, and his genius diagnostic skills have him solving the most intricate medical puzzles and saving lives.
Adding to Dr. House’s impressive medical prowess is that the accomplished doctor achieves his success all while managing chronic pain.
What is your favorite portrayal of chronic pain in pop culture?
Image by Satish Viswanath via Flickr