Scar Tissue: Getting Bit in the Butt – Or Rather, Armpit – By an Old Injury (1)

Remember how I mentioned that I needed to go easy on my left arm during a workout a while back because of an impinged nerve? Well, to be honest, this is another major reason why I’m not pushing super hard in my training outside of climbing right at the moment. The stupidest thing for me to do right now would be to get overzealous about training a scant month (now more like two weeks) before leaving for two months of climbing in Spain. I don’t want to even chance having a minor injury or impairment blowing up into something major at the moment. How much would I regret it if I hammered my body in training and wound up overtrained or injured at the start of my Spain trip?

Okay, so I need to back up here, gather my thoughts, and explain what the heck is happening with this nerve impingement thing, and why and how it’s manifesting now. Here goes…

About five-and-a-half years ago, I sustained my worst climbing injury ever. It was completely my fault. It started with staying out practically all night partying with some friends (read: consuming too much alcohol and not sleeping enough, two big athletic no-no’s) right before flying across the country to a climbing event. At the event venue, the weather was crap; it was pouring rain and cold. We had to get the participants climbing, so we (another clinic leader and I) decided to put up top ropes on some seriously overhanging and hard (5.13 hard) rock climbs that had much easier starts. Keep in mind that at this point, my steep climbing experience was pretty much nada, and I had no skills or muscles for it. As I went to clip through the second chain draw on the roof, I felt a distinctive, nauseating, visceral internal ripping feeling in my left armpit area – it had a rhythm to it that I’ll always remember. It went: RIP… pause…rip-rip. Three rips. I was hosed.

It didn’t really hurt too much by itself, but my left arm was rendered pretty much unusable for anything that I tried with it – excruciating pain flooded my ripped area if I tried to pull a shoe on or pick up a bag. Even the simplest tasks were impossible. Being a person at that point who obviously didn’t train properly, eat properly, sleep properly or take care of her body properly in any way, I didn’t go about healing the injury in the smartest way, either. I didn’t ice the injury, nor did I get it checked out medically. Maybe I took ibuprofen; I don’t remember. But mostly, I just stopped climbing, and figured I’d start again, maybe, once it felt healed enough to start. I actually considered quitting climbing entirely at this point, but that’s another story. Suffice it to say that the injury ended up being a blessing in disguise, at it gave me the time and space to reassess many dysfunctional aspects of my life and being, providing me with a second chance (or perhaps a third or fourth chance?) to try again to get it right.

So…fast forward to now, this winter. I’ve spent the past year both training and climbing at higher intensity and volume levels than ever before in my entire life. I also somehow managed to select one climbing project after another throughout 2011 that required a serious amount of pressing with my left arm, engaging the old injured area (teres minor and triceps) more than ever before. I felt the occasional odd but really light and fleeting twinge or ache of pain in the area through the year, nothing serious or with any staying power. I just figured I was working the muscles that I’d injured so long ago more than in the past, making them stronger as I pushed them in new ways.

When I got home in late November after two months of high-volume, super-steep climbing at the Red River Gorge, I was ultra-psyched to start training. We had two weeks to fit in before our two-week Caribbean holiday. Those two weeks went well enough, though right toward the end of them, I started noticing a numb sensation in my left hand, in the web in between my thumb and pointer finger, on the backside of my hand. As I trained and climbed on Cayman Brac, this numbness became more pronounced. I noticed it got worse after performing workouts that engaged my triceps, like push-ups and military presses, so I stopped doing those. I also noticed that my hand/wrist function declining sharply as the numbness intensified, a definite sign of a pinched nerve.

We traced the impingement to my old injured area, deep in my left armpit. It was lovely to discover a wad of nasty scar tissue that has been residing there for the past five-and-a-half years, impeding movement and muscular development and predisposing me to re-injury (which thankfully hasn’t manifested). Scar tissue doesn’t function like healthy muscle tissue, as explained so well in Brad Walker’s excellent article Pulled Muscles, Scar Tissue and Re-Injury. As he notes, deep tissue massage helps break up the scar tissue and restore normal muscle function – so deep tissue massage on my armpit was in order.

Knowing what was causing the “injury” (it seems strange to consider it an injury, since it hasn’t been painful, really, more just totally weird) helped calm me down, because my range of motion and nerve function got so bad for a few days there that I literally couldn’t pull up the climbing rope to clip it into quickdraws with my left arm. The reverse wrist curl motion was pretty much impossible (and you use that motion when clipping), and even typing became difficult (not good for someone who spends most of her rest days writing!). It was honestly quite scary to have a flopping, limp wrist rejecting my brain’s concerted efforts to make clips. I felt somewhat paralyzed. It also was quite the challenge to figure out how to make every clip with my right hand.

The good parts of this, though, were that my climbing ability didn’t really seem to be impacted by the nerve impingement, and that climbing actually seemed to make the injured area feel better, not worse (and none of the routes I’m trying right now have huge left-arm presses). I decided that training beyond climbing, however, should take a time out, as performing specific and isolating exercises that engaged the inflamed/impinged area seemed like they might only increase the intensity of the issue – not even worth chancing a month before leaving for Spain. Instead, I chose to listen to my body, to hear the message that I should back off from training outside of climbing right now and focus instead on healing up the impingement with the aim of having my wrist back at 100 percent functionality by the time I land in Spain. I’d rather arrive fit for sport climbing than hurt from training, for sure.

To be continued…

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