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Celebrities Detail Their Struggles With Chronic Pain

Their goal: To show people it doesn't have to limit their lives

WEDNESDAY, June 26, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Even chronic, debilitating pain can have a good-looking face.

Just ask celebrities like actress Bo Derek, former Washington Redskins star quarterback Joe Theismann, and television stars Debbie Allen and Corbin Bernsen.

The four were on hand last night for a reception in New York City that was sponsored by Partners Against Pain, an educational program designed to focus attention on the prevalence of chronic pain and how important it is to get treatment.

About 15 percent of the Americans suffer from chronic pain, which is defined as pain that persists more than one month after an injury, or chronic pain that persists for three to six months or longer, said the evening's host, Dr. Russell Portenoy.

Portenoy is chairman of the department of pain management & palliative care at New York City's Beth Israel Hospital.

"Pain is the No. 1 reason people go to the doctor," he said, adding that the three most common types of chronic pain are osteoarthritis experienced by the elderly, lower back pain and chronic headaches.

Yet, studies have shown "there is egregious under-treatment of pain," he added.

The reasons are several, Portenoy noted, including the fact that doctors are often poorly trained in pain management, and the health-care system doesn't fund pain treatment.

But a key reason is that too many patients don't ask for help with their pain.

"Patients are reluctant to complain about their pain; they are fearful of distracting the doctor from focusing on their cure, and they are afraid of taking drugs," he said, all of which keep them from getting the relief they deserve.

"But patients should realize that pain is an illness of equal importance as their disease," Portenoy said, and they should take advantage of the advances in pain treatment.

These advances include new drugs, improvements in the psychology of pain management as well as physical therapies, and new technologies like stimulators that can ease pain.

"You have to be proactive," said Derek, who bewitched Dudley Moore in the 1979 comedy 10. She explained how years of horseback riding had weakened her back and led to a herniated disk that was extremely painful.

"Do your homework about your pain, find the right doctor, do everything he says and make choices," she said.

Theismann, the winning quarterback in Super Bowl XVII, said his struggles with pain were due to countless injuries suffered on the football field.

"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 wouldn't be able to do anything again," he said.

After his 15-year pro career that included seven broken noses, a broken collarbone, broken legs, broken hands and broken ribs, Theismann said he has learned to "function carefully."

He did this, he said, by understanding how his body works, taking over-the-counter medicines when necessary, and being conscious of how to prevent injury, such as bending the knees when lifting heavy objects.

"There are a lot of ways to research to help yourself learn to deal with pain. You have to know it's not going to go away, but, if you have pain, you don't have to have it control your life," he said.

Portenoy said if pain is interfering with your daily activities -- if you can't sleep at night, if you're missing work or skipping activities that you normally enjoy -- you should seek relief.

"Find a doctor with sufficient knowledge in pain management who you can trust and then take his advice," Portenoy said. "He or she will minimize your pain and maximize your ability to function."

Last night's session was funded by the drug company Purdue Pharma L.P.

What To Do

Visit the American Academy of Pain Management for frequently asked questions about pain management. For information about back pain, you can visit

SOURCES: Russell Portenoy, M.D., chairman, department of pain management & palliative care, Beth Israel Hospital, New York City; actress Bo Derek; former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann
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