The Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth is an energetic dynamo. Between touring for her latest album, For the Girls, starring in the Hallmark Channel’s original film A Christmas Love Story, and performing in a New Year’s Eve concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, you’d never guess Chenoweth lives with chronic pain.
Chenoweth’s chronic pain began in her early years as a dancer, but she was also seriously injured in 2012 when a lighting rig fell on her during a television shoot, fracturing her skull, and injuring her nose, jaw, neck, shoulders, and ribs. Her neck, in particular, continues to be a major source of chronic pain.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 50 million American adults are living with chronic pain, according to the 2016 National Health Interview Survey data, which is the most recent year available. Chronic pain can stem from an injury, like Chenoweth’s, or an infection (even an ear infection). It can also have an ongoing cause like arthritis, cancer, or diabetic neuropathy, or result from coexisting chronic pain conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, fibromyalgia, and endometriosis, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Sometimes there is no clear cause.
Chenoweth is hoping to help people better understand chronic pain and the stigma that those living with the condition experience. Here’s how she copes with chronic pain.
Talk about it
Chenoweth wasn’t always comfortable sharing her chronic pain story. However, she recently partnered with a company in an ongoing awareness campaign called This Is Pain. “This Is Pain is giving me an opportunity to talk about it,” she says, “That’s something I didn’t do for a long time because I was scared.” She was afraid of other people’s reactions: “People looking at me and thinking I couldn’t do my job anymore—or that I wasn’t what I once was.” Only those closest to Chenoweth knew what she was going through. But her thinking has changed over time, thanks to the “evolution of aging and looking at life in a different way.” Talking about it now, she says, “is healing.”
Consult with healthcare providers
“I care very much what my doctors have to say,” Chenoweth says, “and I follow [their advice] with a regimen that helps me.” People experiencing chronic pain should discuss their concerns with their primary care physician (PCP), who can assess them, and refer them to specialists, as necessary. “If your pain persists beyond the [suggested] healing time, you should definitely talk to your PCP, and you should seek consultation with a pain medicine specialist early on,” says Natalie Strand, MD, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Aggressive treatment of pain early on yields better outcomes.”
Understand chronic pain isn’t just a symptom, it’s a disease
There’s a big difference between acute pain and chronic pain. Dr. Strand explains that acute pain occurs with an injury or damage to the body, and it goes away as the body heals. “Chronic pain changes from an injury-related pain to a pain that persists despite adequate healing time,” she says. “It changes from a temporary state to a disease state of chronic syndrome.”
Chenoweth points out that this was something she learned only recently, and it was eye-opening. “I just thought, I have chronic pain and I have to deal with it,” she says, emphasizing that she continues to learn more about the condition every day. “I’m still a student of chronic pain disease.”
Remember that pain is invisible to others
“Because nobody else can see it,” says Chenoweth, “people sometimes think I don’t have a problem—or that other people don’t have a problem. If there were flames coming out,” she says, “people would be wanting to help put that fire out. It’s a great reminder [that we need] to talk about it.”
Penney Cowan, the founder and CEO of the American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA) in Rocklin, California, explains that this is part of why there’s a stigma surrounding chronic pain. “Even though you can’t see it,” says Cowan, “it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” It’s also important to realize that a person’s ability to function can vary from one day to the next, depending on how much pain they’re in, which Cowan points out, can be confusing for others, especially in the workplace.
Don’t overdo it
Another lesson Chenoweth has learned on her chronic pain journey is that “pain is different for everybody, so everybody’s treatment is different.” On Broadway, she says, “we keep going with the show no matter what.” But a person with chronic pain can’t take that approach all the time. It’s not sustainable. “I have to remember to take breaks, and say, ‘heal yourself, let yourself be in pain, do what you’ve got to do to move forward.'”
Treatment, says Dr. Strand, really does depend on a person’s individual diagnosis, but there are some things that can be helpful, in general. One is activity pacing, which involves “moderating your activity level so that you’re not staying in bed all day or avoiding all activity, but at the same time, you’re not overdoing it.”
Rely on a combination of treatments
Following the right doctors’ advice and listening to her body has helped Chenoweth learn what works for her. “For me,” she says, “it’s a combination platter of holistic treatments and medication. I have no problem saying that. I’ve tried a lot of things.”
Cowan underscores that it’s a combination of treatment therapies together that help a person move from the mindset of being disabled to feeling more functional. “If one treatment doesn’t give you 100 percent relief,” she says, “don’t give up.” Talk to your health care professional about adding something else.
“I used to stretch at night,” says Chenoweth, “and now I do my stretching in the morning.” Dr. Strand agrees that stretching is beneficial. She points out that a lot of people with chronic pain tend to avoid activity, which can affect their flexibility. But maintaining flexibility—and balance—is one of the most important things you can do to prevent further injury. “I’m a big fan of both stretching and balance exercises,” says Dr. Strand.
Apply heat therapy
The heating pad is another go-to therapy for Chenoweth. Dr. Strand explains that heating pads are especially effective at easing myofascial pain (soft tissue muscular pain) and can help with relaxation. “Both heat and cold [therapies] have roles in managing pain,” she says, adding that ice is a potent anti-inflammatory that can be used to ease inflammation-related pain.
Chenoweth has found certain ointments to be effective at helping to manage her chronic pain. Many find relief with topical over-the-counter (OTC) products like lidocaine patches and capsaicin gels. “You can also go to a compounding pharmacy,” suggests Dr. Strand. “They can put medications together in very specific ways at the direction of your health care provider.” Just remember, she says, that topicals still get absorbed systemically, so consult with your doctor before using them.
Do physical therapy
Working with a physical or occupational therapist can help people with chronic pain learn how to safely engage in physical activity, says Cowan. A physical therapist can tailor an exercise regimen for you, as well as train you in lower-impact exercises like stretching, yoga, tai chi, and strength-training exercises.
In special cases, a physical therapist or another health professional may recommend a cervical traction device to ease neck pain and help relieve some pressure on the spine. Chenoweth uses such a device. “I’ve got my self-traction unit,” she says. “It’s very sexy. I take it on the plane, and make a lot of friends.”
Take medications, as directed by health care professionals
Chenoweth, like many others with chronic pain, does occasionally take pain medication. She also says she’s become a lot more focused on her vitamin regimen lately. There are a number of over-the-counter and prescription drugs that doctors may recommend to treat the condition, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like aspirin and ibuprofen), acetaminophen, serotonin agents (like duloxetine), tricyclic antidepressants, gabapentinoids, and in some cases, opioids.
“For the most part,” says Dr. Strand, “we do not recommend opioid therapy for chronic pain syndrome. The truth is that if you’re on opiates long term, you can develop opiate-induced hyperalgesia, which is basically more pain from [taking] the pain medication. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the pain medications at all. There are plenty of non-opioid pain medications that are very useful.”
Manage mental well-being
“Mentally, it’s been up and down, and I really want to be honest about that with everybody,” says Chenoweth. “There are good days and bad days.” She finds music to be very healing and sometimes channels her pain into her craft. “Creativity is something that inspires me, so I find with chronic pain disease, the more I can focus on music and art, and things that inspire me, it takes [my] mind off [the pain] a little bit.” Occasionally, she’ll even treat herself to a Slurpee to lift her spirits. “It’ll remind me of the blessing that I’m here—it’s [a] very quick pleasure.”
Many people with chronic pain experience depression, anxiety, fear, and activity avoidance, says Dr. Strand. “This is common for everybody I see with chronic pain.” She encourages getting psychological support, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to learn coping mechanisms for managing the stress and other feelings that chronic pain can bring. “In moving from pain as a symptom to pain as a disease,” she says, “you [need] to manage all parts of the syndrome.”
Maintain support systems
“Chronic pain can make people [feel] isolated and socially withdrawn, so it’s very important to make sure you maintain your support system,” says Dr. Strand. She recommends connecting with friends, even if it’s just with a phone call. She also underscores the importance of communicating what you’re going through, so your family and friends can stay informed and support you. Chenoweth relies heavily on her support network. “Music, talking to my mom, talking to my friends that get it,” says Chenoweth, “[all of] that helps me so much.”
Pay attention to overall wellness
Managing the pain is important, but it’s also necessary to focus on other aspects of your well-being, including sleep, nutrition, exercise, emotional health, and your social life, says Dr. Strand, since they can all suffer as a result of this condition. Because it’s not always possible to cure chronic pain, shifting your mindset from focusing on a cure to figuring out how you’re going to live with it—and thrive in spite of it—can open up a lot of options for you. “Paying attention to all aspects of overall wellness is going to help people with chronic pain live their best lives.”
Finally, says Chenoweth, “I want to say to people with chronic pain disease: You’re not alone. It’s okay to talk about it. No one can get mad at you for speaking your truth. Do whatever it takes to make yourself feel better.”