Both illness and pain can be either acute or chronic: acute is episodic, such as a bout of cancer, pneumonia, or a broken bone; chronic is ongoing. When acute, there is a presumption of a cure or healing, whereas with chronic conditions the focus is on coping or managing.
Acute conditions can be excruciatingly painful, even life threatening. Most people have some experience with acutely painful conditions. As a writer, draw on your own experiences or those of family and friends to provide rich descriptions of symptoms and responses. Depending on the specific condition, activity will be limited. So, do your homework on the limitations and effects of a broken shoulder, so-called walking pneumonia, measles, a rabies bite, etc.
Chronic pain is often the result of normal aging effects on bones and joints. But other causes include nerve damage and injuries that fail to heal properly. Plus, some chronic pain has numerous causes. Back pain, for example, could be a result of aging or of a single injury.
As writers, be aware that pain affects behavior, mood, and interpersonal relationships. If your character in pain is the POV character, you can describe the effects directly. But if you need to convey chronic pain from outside your character, be aware of the symptoms and side effects.
Chronic pain limits what one can do, or the amount of what one does in a day.
- ability to work
- play with children
- take care of personal needs
This, in turn, can cause disuse syndrome, the result of “use it or lose it.” Continued limited activity causes weakness, which leads to even less activity. Losing strength and flexibility makes one more susceptible to pain and additional injury—truly a detrimental cycle.
Chronic pain has a huge effect on psychological well-being.
- difficulty concentrating
These psychological effects can be as debilitating as the pain itself.
Writer decisions: How does your character cope—or attempt to cope—with chronic pain?
- alternative or complementary treatments: massage, magnetic therapy, ultrasound, energy medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine
- hired or volunteer helpers
- support groups
- traditional pain meds: consider side effects and possible addiction
- self-medication (a.k.a., alcohol)
Bottom line: Pain can be great for complicating the plot and/or upping tensions among characters. Use it wisely!