Celebrities Suffer From Pain, Too

Being rich and famous doesn't mean immunity from chronic pain.

Jan. 31, 2008 — -- It's no secret that, with the blessing of celebrity, comes the many burdens of fame — from impossibly busy schedules to dealing with tabloid scrutiny.

However, for many stars, chronic pain presents an additional burden. According to Dr. Robert Kaniecki, director of the Headache Center at the University of Pittsburgh, even stars sometimes don't know when it's time to get treatment for serious pain.

"They often are like us — they often don't get help right away, they often try to tough it out, and feel as if trying to get medication is a sign of weakness," Kaniecki said. But, he added, "When they finally do get the right treatments, it changes their lives."

And in dealing with their pain, these stars may be helping not only themselves. Celebrities who come forward with their stories of chronic pain — and how they overcame their conditions — may serve as sources of inspiration for many of their fans who may also experience chronic pain of their own.

The following pages feature a number of prominent actors, athletes and musical stars who have battled — and in some cases, continue to battle — chronic pain.

Marcia Cross

Cross, who plays scheming Bree Van De Kamp on "Desperate Housewives," has suffered from painful migraine headaches since she was 14 years old.

"I was knocked out and writhing in pain, and it was horribly excruciating," the 45-year-old actress said in a recent interview with MSNBC.com.

Cross is one of 28 million Americans who suffer from this potentially debilitating condition. Anything from a snowstorm, to a piece of chocolate, or a stressful day at work can trigger a migraine.

"It's not a life-threatening condition, it is a life-changing condition," said Dr. Lawrence Newman, director of the Headache Institute at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York. People who suffer from migraines can become afraid of the mind-numbing pain and incapacitation that occurs when a migraine hits.

"They live with this constant fear of 'what's going to happen if I get this headache?'" Newman said.

With medication, Cross said she feels she has a handle on the excruciating headaches. In 2006, Cross was the spokeswoman for drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, raising awareness about migraine pain.

"I know when it's coming on, and I take my medication, and in a number of hours, I'm back on my feet again," she said.

Paula Abdul

Abdul, a celebrity judge on the hit series "American Idol," came forward with her chronic pain in a 2005 People magazine interview. For 25 years, Abdul struggled with unexplained, excruciating pain that didn't go away with conventional painkillers.

Abdul said her battle with pain started with a neck injury from a cheerleading accident when she was 17. A few car accidents, and an emergency plane landing years later, only worsened her condition. She has since been diagnosed with a condition known as regional sympathetic dystrophy, also referred to as complex regional pain syndrome.

RSD often develops after an injury, and continues to get worse over time. People may suffer burning pain that spreads beyond the area of the original injury. Sometimes, they even lose the ability to move parts of their body. Once, Abdul told People, she woke up and couldn't move one side of her body. She was trapped in her bed until a housekeeper found her and called for help.

Abdul went through 12 surgeries and tried various pain medications — some with heavy-duty side effects — before she found relief. To top it off, Abdul kept her pain a secret to the public, even through her successful dance videos and recording career in the early 1990s.

Today, Abdul says she feels better than ever, due to a proper diagnosis. Now, she just gets injections of a medication, with low side effects, called Enbrel.

George Clooney

The actor suffered chronic pain after suffering a severe head injury while shooting the 2005 geopolitical thriller "Syriana."

"It was the most unbearable pain I've ever been through," Clooney said in an interview with MSNBC.com. "Literally, where you'd go, 'Well, you'll have to kill yourself at some point, because you can't live like this.'"

Clooney, 45, filmed a scene in which he was strapped in a chair and beaten when the chair was kicked over. Clooney ripped his dura, a membranous wrap around the spinal cord, which helps hold in the spinal fluid. He refused to take pain medications, and continued to act through the pain. But he decided to pursue surgery after spinal fluid began to leak out of his nose.

Dr. Christopher Chisholm, an anesthesiologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., said that actors may suffer significant long-term wear and tear from physically challenging roles, particularly as they get older.

"The expectation is that they are a professional, and it is part of their craft," Chisholm said. "Like any performer, they are expected to perform."

Clooney went on to win a best supporting actor Academy Award for that performance, but he says he still suffers from short-term memory loss.

Tobey Maguire

The star of the blockbuster "Spider-Man" trilogy almost did not make it into his Spidey outfit for the second film, because of the on-and-off back pain he has had for several years.

"I saw the animatics and the story boards of the stunts that I was to do on ['Spider-Man 2'], and I was a little concerned about it," Maguire said in an interview with Sci Fi Weekly. "[I] felt it was my responsibility to disclose my back discomfort to the studio, and to the insurance company, and to the filmmakers, which I did. They were understandably concerned."

Maguire said his condition was likely worsened by the horse riding required by his role in the Academy Award-nominated "Seabiscuit," during the previous year.

Though Maguire may have felt obliged to disclose pertinent medical information to the filmmakers, many actors may have gone on with the show, even if it meant performing dangerous stunts, rather than losing a plum role because of chronic pain.

Performing their own stunts gives actors credibility with an audience. But ultimately, if they are not properly trained, they may put themselves at greater risk for injury, Chisholm said.

"We want to believe he is actually playing that role, and actors feel that," he said. "But when you ignore pain and don't try to address it, it leads to long-term chronic disorders."

Melanie Griffith

Griffith, an Oscar-nominated actress, has long battled chronic pain and painkiller addiction.

A car accident on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles left Griffith, then in her early 20s, with chronic neck pain. She was treated with painkillers, but became addicted to them, in addition to her prior addiction to alcohol and cocaine.

In an interview with Larry King on CNN, Griffith, 50, said doctors gave out painkillers regularly. She was taking Percocet and Norcal "to ease the pain. And also because I was addicted."

Doctors say these kinds of addictions are on the increase. And for celebrities, the risk can be even greater.

"They probably have more easy access to certain kinds of medications, without seeing a physician," said Dr. Benoy Benny, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "One of the things we can learn is that celebrities are not perfect. … They go through tough times just like other people."

Griffith has toned down her "wild child" ways since her marriage to Spanish actor Antonio Banderas.

Elizabeth Taylor

Taylor may be best known for her violet eyes and string of husbands, but the two-time Oscar winner suffered through much of the glamour of old Hollywood.

Taylor was born with scoliosis, which can cause an unnatural curvature of the spine, and she has suffered back pain for years.

"My back [has] been chronically bad since I was a teenager," Taylor told Larry King on CNN.

In addition, the actress has been addicted to alcohol, painkillers and sleeping pills. And she also weathered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia.

Taylor's experiences with chronic pain helped fuel her philanthropic drive. As the co-founder and co-chairman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, Taylor has raised more than $80 million since it was founded in 1985.

And the iconic star of "Cleopatra" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" has not let the pain get the better of her.

"You don't, if you want to go on functioning," Taylor said. "You grin and bear it, and try and get as much sleep as you can, because sleep is a great healer, I find."

Brett Favre

Favre is a three-time MVP winner, two-time Super Bowl veteran and the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.

But his glittering, 17-season career in the National Football League was dimmed by chronic pain, brought about by bone spurs growing on his left ankle. Favre twice had surgery on his ankle, once in 1995, and again in 2007.

Favre suffers chronic pain from his condition, but he said that he rarely takes medication for it and that the pain is tolerable.

Even though professional athletes can push themselves to physical limits most people cannot, Favre's "suck it up and go attitude," may be harming him more than it cheers millions of his fans.

"There are certain situations where you can play through the pain," Chisholm noted. "But there is always something to be lost in the future."

Favre may have a tough-man reputation, but the line between playing for love of the game, and playing to the fans, can be fine in professional sports.

"[Professional athletes] are kind of held to this higher standard, and are not allowed to have the problems everyone else has," Chisholm said. "We want them to be Superman. We want Brett Favre to be that guy who wins the game at the end, and gets knocked down 20 million times, and keeps getting up."

Bo Derek

In her immortal role as Jenny Handley in the 1979 comedy "10," Derek stole the screen as the proverbial carefree "perfect" beauty.

But Derek's real-life battle with pain has been far from a carefree endeavor. She says that years of horseback riding have weakened her back — even contributing to a painful herniated disc.

The pain has not kept Derek down, however. In 2002, accompanied by football star Joe Theismann and other celebrities who have battled pain, she spoke out about her experiences at a New York event. The gathering was sponsored by Partners Against Pain, an organization that brings together patients, caregivers and health-care providers, with the goal of advancing standards of pain care, through education and advocacy.

During the event, Derek discussed the importance of celebrities, and others in the public eye, sharing information about their pain.

Pain experts say that Derek's advocacy could serve as an inspiring role model for others who suffer from chronic pain.

"It legitimizes the condition, and it provides a role model of someone who is successful," Kaniecki noted. "Perhaps because they're more interesting, it's more effective."

Joe Theismann

Theismann, a retired quarterback for the Washington Redskins, suffers from chronic joint pain as a result of his years in the National Football League.

"There were times when I didn't want to get out of bed. I was scared to death that one sneeze, or movement the wrong way, would make me so debilitated that I shouldn't be able to do anything again," Theismann told ABC affiliate WCBV-TV. Now, Theismann says, he has learned to "function carefully."

The pounding that professional football players endure, like Theismann did every time he was sacked, can wear down joints. Often, football players get debilitating osteoarthritis at a very young age.

Theismann was famous for taking a beating on the field. In his 15-year professional career, he suffered seven broken noses, a broken collarbone, broken legs, broken hands and broken ribs.

During a 1985 game, a New York Giants linebacker jumped on Theismann's back, just as another Giant hit his leg, breaking the fibula and the tibia, according to the Washington Post. The incident can be seen as a famous documentation of bone-crunching pain on YouTube.com.

Short of breaking their legs, sports celebrities rarely get sympathy for the pain they endure in their careers. "People often say, 'You're paid a lot of money to do this, so get it taken care of,'" Kaniecki, said, adding that people should remember sports celebrities still have to perform through pain.

Allan Houston

Chronic knee pain has plagued the career of NBA player Allan Houston — and many other basketball players.

Two years ago, Houston retired, saying he had "exhausted everything that I had," to overcome chronic knee problems, according to The New York Times. Houston's left knee has chronic arthritis, apparently caused by a rushed comeback from microfracture surgery on his right knee.

Playing too soon after an injury can destroy the joints of any player in any sport. In Houston's case, the arthritis caused more than pain; it caused problems with his performance.

According to The Associated Press, Houston averaged a career best 22.5 points in 2002 to 2003. But his knee problems severely limited him in his final season, and he scored only 11.9 points per game.

But Houston hasn't let the pain of arthritis win yet. At 36, he rejoined the New York Knicks in October. Guard Jamal Crawford told the AP that Houston can still play.

"Didn't miss a shot, really," Crawford said. "I think he shot 100 shots and made 96 of them, just to get loose. So, he still can shoot."

Montel Williams

Williams may discuss painful topics with guests on his talk show, but the Emmy winner has struggled with pain in his personal life, as well.

In 1999, after being misdiagnosed for about 10 years, according to CNN, Williams, 51, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that affects signaling in the brain and spinal cord.

"I still suffer from odd symptoms," Williams said in an interview with USA Today. "I can get extreme neuralgia pain in my feet and lower extremities. It can be excruciating, and go on 24 hours a day, for months."

To cope with the pain and the slow muscle degeneration, Williams follows a strict diet, and an exercise regime that includes running, lifting weights and martial arts.

"The only thing that has helped me stay alive is working out every day," Williams said.

Williams is also a strong advocate for using medical marijuana to manage pain, saying it helps him get through the day without having to think about pain.

Williams now heads the Montel Williams MS Foundation to raise money for the disease that affects 300,000 people in the United States, and more than 1 million people around the world, according to data from the Mayo Clinic.

In a 1999 interview with CNN, Williams remained positive about winning his battle with MS.

"I want to inspire people, and show them that they can live and prosper with MS."

Jerry Lewis

Lewis, the iconic entertainer, whose comedy antics with Dean Martin dominated television and radio in the 1940s and early 1950s, suffered from chronic back pain for more than 30 years.

His slapstick physical style was the foil to Martin's straight-edge wit. But eventually, Lewis really took the fall, chipping off a piece of his spine during a routine.

"From 1936 on, I have taken more falls than any other 20 comedians put together," Lewis said in an interview with USA Today. "You do that, and you're gonna have problems. I had pain during the last eight films; I've had pain in 37 straight telethons. I've never had a day without pain, since March 20, 1965."

Lewis was addicted to pain medication for a period of time, and he said he considered suicide as an alternative to suffering from chronic pain.

Kaniecki said, however, that even someone in as dire a situation as Lewis' can often experience relief from medical intervention.

"Painful disorders often have a significant disability impact on day-to-day life," he said. "When they finally do get the right treatments, it changes their life."

Lewis had surgery to implant a nerve stimulator in his spine several years ago and has been able to manage his chronic pain successfully, ever since.

"So, I press this one button here," Lewis said. "Little ping, and I'm stimulating, and I don't have any pain."

Ever the comedian, Lewis had the last laugh.

"It also opens my garage door! God bless America!"