Friday, February 16, 2007

The Shaman of Inflammation

A famous person once said that pain is weakness leaving the body. That famous person never felt pain. If pain is weakness, then it should leave the body in a weak manner. Think of something weak; it’s feeble, it’s small, it doesn’t make much noise.

But I have never ran into a pain that casually or even weakly left the body. Oh no. In my opinion, pain snakes, grinds, and weaves its way in and out of every muscle fiber letting you know that it’s leaving – for now - but it will be back. Pain is a bitch like that. The door hits it on the way out and it still wants back in.

Earlier this week, pain was leaving my body via the quadricep/knee connection. I was long into my long indoor ride yesterday when suddenly I felt something in my knee. A few minutes later, it had turned into a steady ache with every push and pull of the pedal. Frustrated, and baffled, I got off the bike and did a slow stretch. Hopped back on and no sooner did I start pedaling than the pain returned. This time worse. I keep pedaling. Pain is there. I pedal slower, faster, easier, harder, pain, pain, pain.

Note that any normal person would have dismounted their bike, accepted the pain, and called it a day. But after you’ve been in the sport long enough, you know better than to fret and fuss about every single little pain. You can’t expect to churn your arms for thousands of yards, spin your legs in circles for thousands of miles, or pound your feet over and over again without a few aches and pains. After awhile you learn, painfully, that pain is indeed par for the course and the longer your course, the bigger your pains.

And so when I dismounted my bike and then went for a run – yes, a run after suffering through about 100000 more pedal strokes of pain - I didn’t think much of the pain. After all, I had grown accustomed to just eating the pain and this was yet another meal at the smorgasboard of aches and pain. I’m not saying this was the smartest decision. On the contrary, it was a very dumb decision. But if I stopped every time I felt a little pain, I probably wouldn’t get very far. So you learn to ride that fine line between suck it up (as in suck up that pain) and f*ck it up (as in stop now or the pain will f you up).

So there I was, later that evening, at Target trying to pretend that I wasn’t in a world of pain, that I didn’t cross the line, that my leg wasn’t f-ed up, when Chris looked at me and said, “are you limping?”

No, pain doesn’t live here in these legs and no, that is not my leg limping in protest of my denial. Maybe if I turn my head and answer he won’t notice me. No, we’re fine. We’re fit, we’re fast. We’ll be on our bike again tomorrow. I have not gone from superfit to superfreak in less than 3 hours.

I limp a few feet further. There was no hiding it. You can’t hide a superfreak. It makes too much noise. “Yes, I’m limping. My knee really hurts.” And after shuffling my way around the store for the next 15 minutes, I believe Chris had enough of the flash forward to what life with me will be like in 50 years as he said “we better get your gimpy ass home.”

But I was probably better off in the store. Because in the store you can’t drop to the floor and starting poking, prodding, or rolling your leg. You know the scenario – you feel something go wrong and you immediately think what can I do to fix this. NOW. No, I can’t wait, I can’t rest until tomorrow, I can’t sit in front of the television without sitting on a ball, running my leg up and down a foam roller, or massaging something to a painful end. You throw ice on it, then heat, then ice, then you roll it out again. It’s a vicious cycle of overzealous pain management left in your own hands. Very, very dangerous, busy, antsy hands.

Unfortunately, I dragged Chris’ hands into my evil den of pain. I convinced him to work out my quadricep trying to release whatever had a death grip on my knee. He started poking on my leg and found spasms that literally brought tears into my eyes. At one point, I made him stop so I could just catch my breath. But this is good. It’s weakness leaving the body, right?

The next morning, I woke up and the pain was still there. Angry little bitch of a pain and it wasn’t going to go away any time soon. Time for Plan B, time to bring out the big guns. Sitting at my desk, I dial the only person that can bring me back from a place as pathetic and painful as this. My doctor; miracle medicine man, purveyor of pain management, the shaman of inflammation.

For the past 7 years, my doctor has literally brought me back from the depths of despair. Many times I found myself walking desperate and forlorn into his office convinced I had fractured a foot, pulled a hamstring, slipped a disc. Then somehow in less than an hour he turned me around, eased my worries, and reinstated me to fully operational status again. He’s just that good.

He knows just the right places to pull, stretch, and poke. And if you can get past the weirdness of it all, you’ll be just fine. It looks like a crazy combination of erotic acrobatics ala Cirque du Soleil and violation via the kama sutra. But more commonly, it’s recognized as active release therapy. And over the years, he has actively released me from the grips of piriformis pain, ITB syndrome, hamstring tendonitis, shin splits, foot cramps, neuromas, plantar pain, backaches, ribs popped out of place, psoas tightness, abdominal strains, and neck needing adjustment. You name it, I’ve had it and he has helped it actively release.

“What are we looking at today, Liz,” he asked as he walked into the room. My legs lay in front of me on the table. I explain the situation, he listens, looks, then feels his way around. Diagnosis – one tight sartorius bound up in the quadriceps and pulling at my knee. He starts a series of pushes and passes over my leg while simultaneously stretching – and subsequently releasing – the pain.

He tells me where the pain is coming from, what it’s pulling on, how he’s going to treat it. I lay there for awhile, eating a new type of pain but still I’m hungry for the information. I ask my usual tirade of questions; how did this happen? Will it get better? Am I done? Is this it? A season ending injury? Did I break my knee cap? Fracture it? Am I permanently damaged? Will I be forced to sit on the couch for the next few months pitying myself while eating peanut butter cups?

“Liz, you trained too hard,” he said looking up at me while working on my leg.

Oh. That’s it?

As he continues to contort and bend my legs, I think about what he said. Yeah, I’ve been biting the pain pretty hard lately. Ate a big brick-sized sandwich of pain just the other day. Sometimes you just dig a little too deep.

And usually that’s all it takes. A simple statement that there is nothing overly complex or untreatable about this. You pushed too hard, too soon, too fast. You worked too much. You overdid it. Sometimes it’s just that simple.


We’ve all been there. We’ll all tasted that kind of pain. But every once in awhile, it pays to listen to the pain, and not just suck it up. Because chances are if you suck it up too much you’ll end up crossing that line. And find yourself sitting on a doctor’s table feeling totally f-ed up.

So next time you’re feeling a little tight, a little pain here, and an ache there, take the time to listen and relax. After all, it’s only February and it’s not time to dig too deep – yet. You won’t lose your fitness in a day and you won’t gain 10 lbs in one night. Instead, you’ll probably fall asleep early and be better off because of it the next day.

And if it comes back, take it one day at a time. Be patient. The pain will eventually pass, it always does.

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