It’s been a few years now since I first began to understand my pain problem– three, to be specific.
Since then, I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress in terms of how I view pain and my nervous system, and how much trust I have in my body. Finally, I was able to break the cycle I’d been caught in for years, where where I’d go from doctor to doctor, begging them to explain why I was in so much pain.
Unfortunately, at the same time that I’ve gone through these mental and emotional transformations, I’ve also had some very real physical issues to deal with.
I mentioned at the end of “How a physical therapist helped me through my lowest point, Part 8” that I was developing chondromalacia patella in my right knee, and that it was made worse by the fact that my physical therapist told me the pain wasn’t significant and that I could try to ignore it.
I was 26 when this happened… I’m 29 now.
What happened in the intervening years is so incredibly frustrating to look back upon. I thought my problems were ending when I finally solved my pain problem, but thanks to the chondromalacia patella, things were actually going to get a lot worse before they got better.
The only way to look back on the past three years without feeling completely powerless is to focus on what I could have done differently, knowing what I know now. Now I know:
If only I’d started physical therapy for the chondromalcia patella sooner, it never would have gotten as bad…
If only I’d known that the cortisone injection wouldn’t be worth it; that all the extra fluid in my leg would put me on crutches for a week…
If only I’d known how quickly I would become weak from inactivity, I would have refused to hold still…
If only I’d known that working out in a pool would be the only option for me, I would have joined a pool right away and not wasted any time trying to work out on land…
Basically, I started physical therapy for my knees too late. I went to physical therapy and did everything my new PT told me, but all of her exercises weren’t enough to counteract the downward spiral I’d ended up on.
As I would learn, there are two ways to weaken a muscle. One is to not use it at all. The other is to completely overuse it so that it doesn’t have a chance to rest.
I was, unfortunately, doing both of those things. It was excruciatingly painful to put any weight onto my right knee, so I moved very, very little—causing all those muscles I wasn’t using to weaken.
Then, when I did move, I was completely overusing the muscles I could use—aka putting all of my weight onto my left leg and completely overworking the muscles of my left hip.
I was doing everything my physical therapist told me, but I just ended up with even more pain in the front of my left hip, and then my right hip, and then the chondromalacia patella started up in my left knee. Then I ended up with pain in my low back.
And then, about six months after I’d really started limping because of my knee, I developed some issues with the sacroiliac joint (where the pelvis meets the spine, in the low back).
The sacroiliac joint turned into its own saga, which I will have write about in future posts, because there are basically no helpful articles about it online.
Things only started to get better for me when I started to work out in a pool, and even then, getting stronger was no easy feat.
I finally feel like I’ve started to figure everything out now; three years later.
It meant I had to let go of a lot of things I’d learned about exercise in the past, and really study some basic concepts in order to help myself.
I had to really learn a lot in order to help myself. It was hard to get help from anyone else, because, as anyone who’s been a patient knows, physical therapists (at least in this country) can only focus on one diagnosis and part of the body at a time.
I didn’t need physical therapy for my knees anymore. Or my hips. I needed to strengthen everything.
I didn’t have just one or two weak links anymore… I literally did not have the baseline amount of muscle that would allow me to walk from one end of the house to another and hold all of my joints in place without pain. (Both the chondromalacia patella and sacroiliac joint issues were ultimately caused by lack of muscle strength).
So I had to start from scratch. From less than nothing, because I had to find a way to move despite the fact that many of the movements we take for granted were impossible for me.
Ever since the first time I wrote a description for the “About” section of my blog, I’ve said I planned to write about exercise and fitness. I haven’t quite gotten around to that yet, but now you, my readers, know why I will.
I don’t really plan to write about fitness from a bodybuilding or super-overachiever standpoint. That stuff is interesting, but it’s just so far removed from my daily reality right now that I don’t really have much use for it.
What’s important is the basics. Knowing that if you strengthen a muscle without ever stretching it, you will shorten its resting length. That there is a difference between strength and endurance, and if you only train for one, you will never develop the other. Knowing about this little thing called the Golgi tendon reflex, which will allow you to relax just about any muscle you want just by putting pressure on it (the concept behind foam rolling).
These are things that people with chronic pain can benefit from knowing. When I look back, I can actually see how a lot of my issues with pain—confused nervous system or not—were also related to the fact that I was simply so out of shape from the injuries and periods of inactivity I’d had when I was younger. I mean, yes, I had a heightened pain sensitivity, but at the same time, anyone who was as weak as I was was bound to be in pain. There’s just no way that wouldn’t happen.
I hope the things I’m going to write about will be helpful for you all. I’m going to talk about how my perspective on changed, and how I was able to use what I’d learned from Neil Pearson’s techniques to cope with what I was feeling, while at the same time knowing I had some physical issues that I couldn’t immediately change.
So much has changed in my life, even though all the while to the outside observer, it looks like I’ve been holding still. But that is just so, so far from the truth (sometimes I need to remind myself of that!).