Doctors like to tell their injured patients to give up on their sport and “take up swimming.” Today, I’ll show you why you should backhand doc in the face if he’s ever said those words to you.
“NO MORE LIFTS FOR YOU!”
ACL tears, osteoarthritis, blown lumbar disks, tendinosis… things that no mentally-capable lifter wants to experience. Unfortunately, bad things happen to good people and life can be a son of a gun. Brothers-and-sisters-in-iron feel the pain quite literally and run into injuries. Now, if you folks are like me, you weren’t granted medical mastery upon birth, and naturally ended up seeing a physician after your first serious injury, just like I did.
Let me guess how the timeline of events occurred for you…
You see Dr. Gyno Bellyfat, MD, who tells you to “stop it and take it easy”; you leave frustrated and pushed onward with training which only makes matters worse; you go back to the doc, only for him to scold you and then give you a generic diagnosis, such as tendonitis, and a prescription for ibuprofen; you begin training more conservatively after, only to realize that your injury is really not going anywhere; you go back to the doctor, who gives you another prescription, this time for physical therapy; you see the physical therapist who instructs you to do B.S. exercises with pink dumbbells; after realizing the pink dumbbells aren’t helping, you go back to the doctor, which leads to nowhere, yet again; you go to the local topless bar and pick up a liking for cocaine, now that you don’t go to the gym anymore.
Should I be listening to you?
Excluding the last part about cocaine, these scenarios happen ALL THE TIME. It’s talked about on every single forum on the internet, at family parties, at school, at work. The stories of never-healing-injuries and never-helpful-doctors are endless and everywhere.
THE BODY CAN HEAL – DEAL WITH IT.
But let me tell you there is no reason to believe that you can’t get over your injuries and get back in the gym. Plenty of people give up on being a bodybuilder, powerlifter, weekend warrior, athlete, etc. just because they feel like their injuries have “finished their careers”, so to speak. Sure, if someone becomes an amputee, she or he may not become the world’s fastest sprinter or the next Mr. Olympia, but a run-of-the-mill orthopedic injury shouldn’t be prevent you from actualizing your body’s genetic potential.
And I’ve got some evidence to prove my point.
For those of you who don’t know, the body has an amazing capacity to heal itself. Cut your hand, and within a few weeks that wound will close up into a nice scar and it will be like nothing ever happened. Broken bone? Set the fractured pieces in place and watch it heal.
A point of contention that doctors or naysayers make when they argue that you’re screwed with “so-and-so injury” is that the tissue-organs typical of these mishaps (ex., ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and vertebral disks) have little-to-no blood supply, and that the healing process is driven by the nutrients in the blood.
To dispute this claim, the Wheeless’ Textbook of Orthopedics recognizes the healing process in damaged ligaments and notes that it is similar to conventional wound healing, with a few differences. It also cites a study in which lengthened rat ligaments (loose ligaments usually result from an injury) are able to return to its original tightness after some time. (Wheeless)
If that weren’t enough, here are some real-life cases of orthopedic-type injuries improving (without surgery):
1. Surgeons took 146 adults with meniscus tears and split them into two groups: those who receive surgery to fix the tear, and those who received a “fake” surgery (unbeknownst to the patient). At the time of the follow-up, both groups felt an improvement and the researchers saw no difference in improvement. (Sihvonen et. al)
2. Researchers split back-pain patients into two groups: those who got surgery, and those who were treated conservatively. After 4 years, both groups improved and the difference between the two groups’ improvement was insignificant. (Weber)
I think it’s safe to say, given the right environment and situation, that the body has a decent ability to revert its damaged goods back into functioning machinery. As someone who’s injured (and recovered) nearly every joint in his body, I’m well-aware of that ability. Permanently replacing the barbell with the stationary bike is not necessary. So, with that said, I wanted to share some tips and advice to the brothers and sisters out there who’ve been side-lined from the gym.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.
If doing something hurts, then STOP DOING IT. The one thing that is universally true in my opinion is that pain is a sign that something is wrong. I’m not talking about soreness or little aches and pains, but if bench pressing is feels akin to stabbing your shoulder with a rusty pair of scissors, do yourself a favor and take a break from benching.
This is going to require patience on your behalf, but if I had listened to this advice when I was younger, I’d be deadlifting over 500 pounds by now. “Working through the pain” does not end well – trust me on this.
Also, this doesn’t mean you go big or go home. If there are movements or lifts in your routine that doesn’t hurt you, continue training with those.
SOME DOCTORS AREN’T WORTH SQUAT.
Physicians are a mixed bag: some don’t care about your strength career, some are knowledgeable in sports medicine and understand the importance of lifting, and some love you so much they’ll write you a prescription for testosterone cypionate for that “deficiency” you have.
Naturally, seeing a random family practice doctor or even an orthopedic surgeon may leave you disappointed. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for each doctor that told me to take up swimming or biking. To deal with this, you seek out the helpful doctors. Talk to friends or family or local gym-rats and see if they know anyone who’s worth their salt.
LEARN ABOUT YOUR INJURIES.
Nothing is more empowering than knowledge. With the right knowledge, you can do anything within the realm of reality. So, why not make the best of a crappy situation and learn as much as you can about anatomy and injuries?
In the internet-age, there is so much information out there covering any subject you imagine. Scoop a cup out of this info-fountain and see what you can find about your injuries.
Two examples of useful resources that I’ve found to help me are the author Eric Cressey (for shoulder and elbow injuries) and the book Ultimate Back Fitness by Dr. Stuart McGill (for back injuries).
ESTABLISH NEAR-PERFECT TECHNIQUE.
This one goes without saying, but it’s still worth reiterating – learn how to perform the exercise correctly before you throw on some weight and make it a regular part of your workout. It’s common knowledge that your spine takes less of a beating in the deadlift and squat when your back is flat and not rounded, and that your rotator cuff has more room to glide inside your shoulder when you don’t flare your elbows out during the bench press.
Do them right and keep your body happy.
RE-ASSESS YOUR PROGRAM.
This tip will be for folks with non-traumatic injuries. If you slipped on ice and fell on your butt, this probably won’t apply to you.
Let’s say, for example, your shoulders are a bit wonky and you have impingement. Take a look at your program/workout journal (if you have one – if not, get one now). Are you putting more emphasis on pressing movements than you are on pulling movements? Are you doing pulling movements at all? If not, that may be a sign that your program and exercise selection is not helping out your injuries.
How about another example. Your back starts to hurt – check out that workout journal of yours. Are you performing an insane amount volume for your back? I’m talking deadlifts, RDLs, low-bar squats, hyperextensions, kettlebell swings, etc. Barring a technique issue, you may want to trim some of the work you have for your posterior chain, or consider replacing some of it with an exercise like the reverse-hyperextension, so that you can decompress your spine while you strengthen your glutes and hamstrings.
Preventing and treating lifting-related injuries is a tricky task: the trainees are not medical experts, and the medical experts aren’t always helpful. However, the information available to us, as well as the ability to communicate to the world, is greater than ever.
There’s no reason why someone can’t be knowledgeable enough to prevent injury, as well as be able to use the “grape-vine” to search for a decent doctor. With a little grit and elbow grease, the trainee can be competent enough to help himself within reason, and can find a capable physician that won’t give him or her a BS cookie-cutter treatment.
That’s it folks. Be smart, be patient, and keep lifting heavy!
1. Wheeless, Clifford R. Wheeless’ Textbook of Orthopaedics. 2012. Wheeless Online. http://www.wheelessonline.com/ortho/ligament_healing_characteristics.
2. Sihvonen, Raine, et al. “Arthroscopic Partial Meniscectomy versus Sham Surgery for a Degenerative Meniscal Tear.” The New England Journal of Medicine. 369 (2013): 2515-2524. NEJM. Web. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15360131.
3. Weber, H. (1983) Lumbar disk herniation: A controlled prospective study with ten years of observation. Spine, 8: 131.