Dealing With Injuries- A Personal Story
I remember it like it was yesterday and very often it doesn’t seem as far away as 8 years ago. I was doing cable curls in the dingy basement gym that I trained out for years in Brooklyn with the full stack of 250lbs. Every sinew of muscle in my arms was focused on getting that weight up as the burn in my biceps became more and more unbearable. I was on my eight repetition, watching the weight go up ever so slowly and struggling against gravity and steel which in the moment were my mortal enemies when it happened. The cable station I was working in had a chin up bar placed squarely in the center and there was a relatively experienced member of the gym doing pull ups right behind me as I was doing my curls. The gym wasn’t big by any stretch of the imagination and so I had been used to people working right next to me as I trained. He wasn’t a novice by any means and so I didn’t pay any mind to the fact that he was only a few inches away from me at the time.
Looking back I ask myself over and over if I should have sensed something but I can honestly say that I didn’t and what happened would have happened the same way if I could relive the experience all over again. While doing his pull ups behind me, the unthinkable happened. His hand slipped from the bar and he fell off to his left side, all two hundred and fifty pounds of him coming crashing down on my neck just as I was in mid lift of two hundred and fifty pounds on the cable curl machine. I heard a snap as his elbow stuck me right at the base of my neck and I felt a white pain stab me all the way down to my fingertips. Perhaps I didn’t fully grasp the enormity of what had happened or perhaps I was in shock, either way I gritted my teeth and did two more pain racked repetitions before putting the weight down and stopping to access the damage.
I remember the gentleman who fell on me saying something in the way of an apology, but I couldn’t really hear him. I was too busy realizing that I couldn’t really move my arms and that I was locked in position. He took one look into my eyes and ran out of the gym, never to be seen back there again. I think he believed- quite I error- that I was going to inflict some damage on him, something that I didn’t and never have considered. It was an accident and accidents happen. The severity of the outcome doesn’t necessitate that someone always has be blamed. Everyone kept asking if I was alright and I mumbled that I would be fine, all the while feeling a growing sense of dread that this wasn’t in the category of a minor injury that I could shrug off. I was hurt and hurt pretty seriously.
I made my way out of the gym and took a car service home- with every bump in the road and sharp turn sending bolts of agony through my neck and down my arms. I remember getting immediately into bed and nothing else. The next morning I awoke with my arms locked in position and a searing pain that I would become intimately acquainted with for the next 8 years. I never had any reason to see him as I never really got injured as an adult while training, but I had a chiropractor in my phonebook who I sent all my clients and martial art students to whenever they were injured. He specialized in sports medicine- and had a strong background in acupuncture as well and I truly respected him as a practioner. I called him up and he said that he would see me immediately and so I endured the short but excruciating cab ride to his office- with even the vibrations from the door slamming seeming to send shivers of pain into my neck.
He worked on me for a while- an agony that I can hardly recall, and then placed some needles strategically in my back and neck to help relax the muscles. He said it didn’t look good and referred me to a orthopedist to see what was going on. From that night onwards and for many nights to come I couldn’t sleep very well. You don’t think of your neck very much but when it’s injured you suddenly become aware of how involved it is in almost every move you make. It hurt to keep my head up, it hurt to put my head down, it hurt to sit and it hurt to stand. Worse of all, lying down was agonizing, both with and without a pillow. Sleep consisted of periods where the pain lulled just enough for me to drift off before rearing it’s head again and waking me up with shafts of pain if I moved ever so slightly in any direction. Night and day became one long stretch of misery, punctuated only by light and darkness. My whole life became about finding a position where my neck didn’t hurt too much.
I saw the orthopedist only two or three days later and he ordered an MRI. I have no qualms about being enclosed, nor am I claustrophobic- but the act of laying flat on my back in the machine required every iota of willpower to not scream. The technicians were initially somewhat annoyed by my difficultly in being completely immobile but after they saw the results they became a bit more sympathetic. They wouldn’t disclose the results but one of them touched me on the shoulder and said that she understood why it was so hard for me to lay still. The results from the orthopedist weren’t encouraging. I had two discs in my cervical vertebrae that were bulging out. One was protruding to the left, the other to the right. He said that short of a car accident such neck trauma wasn’t common, and that it may very well have been that my well muscled shoulders were the reason I wasn’t paralyzed from the blow.
It got worse- he said that there really was little that could be done and that the pain in my neck and in my hands would probably never really go away. A spinal injury, he explained, was permanent and there weren’t any options on the table. His advice was that I stop weight training altogether and do some rehabilitation exercises to help me with the injury. I got a second opinion which was pretty much the same and I decided to very respectfully disregard their advice. I didn’t take any of the painkillers prescribed, as I am not a fan of them and in my work in social services have seen many a case of people addicted to those same drugs after months of relying on them to get through the day. I wasn’t going to be one of them- not at all out of any misguided machismo, but out of a very real awareness that if I started something that made the pain go away, I would never stop taking it.
The muscles relaxants they gave me made me feel worse for wear and so I stopped taking those, using only Neurotin- a drug that stopped the shooting pains in my fingers and hands. Two weeks after the injury and wracked with pain, I dragged myself back into the gym. If it was that I could never hold a weight in my arms ever again, I had to see this for myself and if there was a way for me to get back, I was going to find it, no matter how long it took or how much suffering it involved. My neck hurt, but I could do a leg workout as long as I didn’t turn my neck or place any weight on my shoulders, and for the next several weeks, that’s what I did. As time went on I added light, supported movements for my abs, arms and upper back- with each new exercise bringing a fresh layer of pain the next day- but I would not stop.
I had worked with dozens of clients with severe herniations, and my philosophy had always been that if we can’t fix the joint, we can build the muscles around it up to a point where they can compensate and allow for pain free range of movement. A good physician heals himself and that’s what I set out to do. I had been hurt in the summer of 2003, but by the end of winter I was back. Careful- still in constant pain- but able to do most of what I used to do before. I wouldn’t dare try to deadlift 600lbs or clean and jerk 315lbs the way I did in the past- but there was a range of movements I could do and lifting heavy was never a requirement for me- it was just what I was able to do. By the fall of 2004 I had competed in two bodybuilding contests, winning one and making the top three in the other. I did them just to see if I still had it and some said that it was the best I ever looked.
I never said anything about being in pain, nor did I ever give any outward show of it-to admit it was to be defeated by it and I had no intention of being the subject of anyone’s pity. I learned to sleep as best I could without moving and when the weather changed I learned to deal with the pain that came with an approaching rain. That year I filmed my bodybuilding documentary and in doing so, lifted more weight than I had ever thought off in my life. I never let my injuries limit me mentally or physically, and I found that since I was so attuned to how I had to train, that I become far stronger and better for it. My experience as a trainer has always been founded on my injuries and I have had many of them- torn rotator cuffs, herniated discs in my lumbar region and tendinitis in just about every joint in my body. Those injuries defined me- as they very often taught me what not to do- hard lessons that I learned at a younger age when lifting as heavy as I could took precedence over common sense.
As painful as they were they also taught me compassion and understanding. My injuries helped me understand on a very intimate level what those of my clients who come to me with a pre-existing injury are going through. I have learned not only what not to do and how to work around just about any joint or muscle condition- but also how to put myself in their shoes and help them along in the healing process. An expensive education- being injured, but one that I cannot say that I regret in terms of how it helps me do what I do to help others recover from their injuries.
My neck hurts. And probably always will. I have my good days and my bad days, but you would be hard pressed to tell by looking at me. I have learned that there are things in life that you cannot change- but what you can change is your perspective. Thanks to my training, I wasn’t paralyzed by the injury and thanks to my training I can do almost everything that I could do before and more. The few exercises that I lost are made up for in spades by the fact that I am stronger and even more advanced in my own personal physical and spiritual development as a result. Pain is a part of life- one that we can’t ever completely eliminate, no matter how hard we try. But we can learn from it and we can make ourselves more for experiencing it. Every moment can be an opportunity for learning and advancement, but only if we are open enough to embrace the inevitable and do our best to learn from it. Thanks for reading.
Kevin Richardson is an award winning fitness writer, one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity TrainingTM. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here. If you live in the New York metropolitan area and need help losing weight or taking your body to the next level give Kevin and his team a call at 1-800-798-8420 or click here to get started with 50% off your trial personal training session.