Coping with an Injury: The Knee Edition

After having taken a break from running over my Christmas vacation at Lake Tahoe, I could hardly wait to return to non-snow covered trails at school in Oregon. Little did I know that two runs in, I’d get injured…

It happened without warning: I awoke pain-free, went about my day as usual, and then, boom, I found myself in bed, falling asleep (or at least trying to…) with ice packs strapped to my knees that were propped up on a pillow.

Catastrophe.

Or so I thought.

Fearful that I wouldn’t be able to run again, I took to scouring the internet for recovery tips. Unsure of what the exact injury was, I made my best judgment – first deducing that I had strained the patella tendon by taking a risky yoga move too far, and then considering that the pain may be tendonitis caused by overuse – and collect self-help tools; after all, unable to use the student health center because I am not taking classes this term, and unwilling to pay an extortionate price to see a doctor who would only convince me that surgery was the only option, there was little more I could do than take the issue into my own hands. And it worked.

I babied my knee: no running, no spin class, minimal walking, icing galore, and daily massages by placing the trouble zone in front of the jets in the hot tub (the heat and force improved the blood circulation to the tendon, which, in turn, encouraged repair).

Having always feared injury, and believing that I’d probably die if I was unable to do cardiovascular exercise, I was impressed with my self-control. And how did I do it, you may be wondering, well here’s the trick:

Tell yourself that if you push past the pain and continue to exercise despite obvious injury, you’ll never ever EVER be able to run or bike or swim or hike etc. again.

It’s as easy as that.

The thought that I’d never again be able to engage in sport if I worsened my injured knee by not allowing it to heal with rest, gave me the strength to take time off. I needed an ultimatum, and the thought of sitting at home while my friends and family went skiing motivated me to embrace my sedentary days, as did stories of middle-aged people who were unable to be as active as they were in the youth due to not listening to their bodies aches and pains.

But the thing that really got me was not knowing when the pain would come to an end.

During the first few days, I kept telling my fellow runner friends that my injury was probably minimal and that I’d be back out there with them in no time at all. How wrong I was. As the weeks passed, not being able to run and bike ride got a smidgen easier, but not knowing how much longer I’d have to continue as a “cripple” increasingly worsened. And it didn’t help that the old lady at the gym who’s completely off her rocker asked me every evening how my knee was doing, drawing even more attention to it, and then proceeded to tell me how awesome her daily 8 mile runs were going. Eventually, I learned to just laugh her comments off… What more can you do? Plus, since she said she was praying for my recovery, I cut her some slack.

Another major helper in my healing process was the ten-day trip I took to Japan three weeks after the onset of the injury. Fearing that I’d be crippled by knee pain in Japan, where we planned on walking all over Kyoto and Tokyo, as well as skiing up North for four days, I knew that exercising through the pain would be the worst decision ever. Plus, when my travel companion asked If I’d be staying back at the hotel while she and my uncle hit the slopes, I grew even more determined not to give into my urges to hit the gym. That goodness I had this foresight, and thank goodness I have an inordinate amount of self-control. Tip #2: think into the future.

As Japan was rapidly approaching and my knee was still giving me trouble, I decided to invest in some braces for extra support. These worked wonders, as did KT tape. Slowly, the pain diminished and the day I left for Japan marked the start of functioning free of pain. You better believe I took a full bottle of ibuprofen in case of emergency, as well as both my knee braces for skiing and walking around the cities, but I’m glad to report that neither are totally necessary now. At long last.

Five weeks later and I can officially run comfortably for 30 minutes, swim just as much as before I got injured (though I do avoid breast stroke because of the awkward knee motion), and walk without any trouble whatsoever. Knock on wood. I have yet to attend a spinning class, but I plan on doing so next week; I’m just too nervous about my knee flaming up again, and I know how vulnerable it is at the moment. I’m being smart, I’m taking it slowly, and I’m trusting in my ability to take care of myself. Our bodies are too fragile to mess around with.

As my mum said, everything happens for a reason, and I think she’s right. Initially, I was defensive because I denied that I was exercising too much, but, over time, I learned that maybe I can tone it down a little. Taking time off has taught me that I won’t blow up like a balloon if I don’t run miles and miles everyday, and that I don’t need to workout twice daily. In fact, these short jogs I have been going on have proved to be quite enough. Having reduced my daily exercise allowance, my body feels healthier and, ironically, stronger, I am more energized, and my concentration has improved. Admittedly, I still could not go a day without engaging in some form of physical activity, which some people may say is rather disordered, but I can count a yoga class plenty, and I can limit my swimming to half-an-hour instead of 60 minutes. And this is good enough; I am an active person by nature, so I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.

I hope this post helps all you restless readers with injuries out there, and please do not hesitate to reach out if you need someone to vent to. Sudden immobility is irrefutably infuriating, so please remember that I’m here for you; I will do everything in my power to help you through tough times.

And on that note, here is a summary of my 7 tips to maintaining sanity when recovering from an injury:

1. Think about the long-term: upon recovery, you can gain back fitness quickly, but if you ignore your pain, you may end up being immobile later on. Bare your future in mind…

2. Be loyal to icing: don’t get lazy when it comes to taking the time to ice your injured area. Icing reduced inflammation, and thus will speed up your recovery.

3. Use support: I’m talking braces, crutches, slings, and any thing else you can think of. For me, knee supports were a life-saver; I alternated between three different ones to make sure I wouldn’t become reliant on one type, and this worked wonders. In terms of taking more serious measures, I wish I had used a crutch or two when I first developed the injury; unable to fully use my right leg  meant my left had to compensate, which resulted in that knee also hurting, albeit only temporarily. Moral: be wary of overcompensation.

4. Look to others: think about other people who have had to endure an injury, and use them as inspiration. Having heard about other athletes’ injuries, and by observing runners get treatment for their aches and pains where I work at the University of Oregon Athletic Department, motivated me to heal myself. I just kept mentally repeating if they can do it, so can I.

Just look to this trooper for inspiration…

4. Eat well: do not alter your diet drastically. Yes, you may not have as roaring an appetite if you’re not exerting as much energy as usual, but your injured body part needs fuel to properly heal. Depriving yourself of nutrition will only slow down the rehabilitation process. Be wise, and be conscious of your nutritional needs.

5. Find Alternatives: On days when my restlessness was too much to contain, I’d hit the pool, but without using my legs. Let me introduce you to my stroke of choice: front crawl with a pull buoy. Pull buoys support the body without kicking the legs, which in turn allowed me to train my arms, thus ensuring that I could maintain my hard-earned endurance and upper body strength. I also continued to go to Power Lift classes, but I sat out of the squat and lunge tracks. You just got to do that.

To exercise without using your injured knee, swim with a pull buoy.

6. Be positive: stressing out about all the bad stuff that comes with being injured will simply stunt recovery; it may sound cheesy, but the more relaxed you are, the more cooperative your body will be.

7. Remind yourself that it’s not permanent; you will heal. And trust me, If I, The Energizer Bunny of The World, can take time off from sport to repair an injury, so can you. Just let your body do its thing. 

What are some of your coping strategies?

What have you injured and how?

How long was your rehabilitation process?   

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