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One Climber’s Story: Five Injury Case Studies (V)

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To round out this series on climbing injuries, the next few entries will get a little more personal as I present and discuss five injuries I’ve incurred during my life as a climber. I share these in the hopes that they might help other climbers/athletes first and foremost to avoid similar injuries. I also hope to help others understand that if and when injuries do occur, they can provide great insights and lessons for us in the moment as well as for our future selves as to what we should and shouldn’t do to avoid incurring such show-stopping injuries again. Every single injury or series of injuries I’ve lived through has led to a greater understanding of my own body and being, informing and shaping my life afterward in ways that I maybe never would have expected or been open to had the injury never happened.

Case Study Five: Nerve Impingement (2012)

Injury: Nerve impingement in my left arm leading to a temporary partial paralysis of my left hand and wrist.

Causal Factors: Overtraining and too much, too soon, plus a likely connection to the previous muscle tears in 2006, which I believe probably didn’t heal properly and played into this whole scenario. I dove right into training in the winter as hard as I had been training in the previous winter instead of easing into it slowly (which is way smarter). Once again, my enthusiasm got the best of me. I was stoked to try out some new, difficult opposing muscle exercises (pushing motions opposing the common “pulling” motions of climbing), which I should have waited to try until I was more conditioned. My hand started to have some numbness and to feel weak. In response, I backed off what I was doing in training, and it started improving as a result (of course; at least I’d learned something about overtraining at this point). Then I tripped and fell on a hard surface while traveling, and I put my hands out automatically to absorb the shock. This inflamed what was already inflamed even more. My radial nerve became impinged, almost cutting off the signaling from my brain to my hand. I couldn’t type or pick up a glass of water or put a rubber band in my hair, much less clip a climbing rope into a quickdraw with my left hand, for a couple months.

Recovery: I don’t want to rehash this injury here in great detail. I did seek medical help and did get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. This involved absolutely no repetition of the motion causing the injury (i.e. no pushups and guarding obsessively against falling and catching impacts on my arm, and so forth), ample use of NSAIDs (ibuprofen multiple times a day), ice on the affected area, and an understanding that if it didn’t progressively improve or it worsened, that I would probably need surgery or risk losing full use of the limb for life. Thankfully, this injury did heal progressively and I didn’t reinjure it; gradually and ever-so-slowly, I regained the full use of my left hand and arm, and the awful feeling of paralysis, numbness and weakness subsided.

Long-Term Result: This injury was the best injury for me ever, though at the time, it was completely devastating – not just physically but also, mentally and emotionally. All of my injuries throughout life have been blessings in disguise in one way or another, whether we’re talking climbing-related physical injuries or entirely mental/emotional injuries, actually, but this could take me off on a philosophical tangent for pages and pages. The point here is that this injury forced me to take a step back and take a hard look at what I was doing to myself repeatedly in training and even beyond training (too much) and to wave it off like an MMA referee waves off a fighter from his or her already downed opponent, disallowing the opportunity for more strikes and more damage. In this case, I was fighting myself and TKO’ing myself regularly, knocking myself down not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally, completely, time and time again. This is common pattern for the zealous athlete (or any person who is overcommitted to anything), but not a very sustainable or productive approach, especially over the long term.

A frightening, sidelining injury can provide an incredible opportunity, giving you space and time that you don’t normally have to think things through while you’re away from your sport, perhaps becoming an impetus for change, for introspection and for reevaluation/examination of your approach to training, climbing or life overall…even if it only serves as a slow-it-down signal, and nothing more. It can be so desperately hard in the moment (or long, drawn-out moments) of downtime away from the activity you love to see things positively in this manner or to understand what you can take from the situation and mold into a brighter, more productive and fulfilling way of climbing, living and being. It’s not something to succeed or fail at, though; it’s a process and an opportunity for growth and learning.

This injury compelled me to reevaluate so many aspects of my being. The details don’t really matter as far as sharing all of the personal revelations and realizations that came from this. The big message from this injury for me was, “Wake up!” Stop bullying and berating and beating your being, body, mind and soul, for not performing at the levels you aspire to perform at. Find a gentler approach, a sounder path, a safer way to make this journey toward climbing harder (or whatever you dream of doing better or differently) productive and pleasant, both, for all aspects of your being, and those around you, too. Enjoy your relative state of health, strength and comfortable living situation now instead of racing for and banking on some better place that might exist some day in the future (or dwelling in the past).

It’s fine to pursue greater heights and personal goals but it’s also really important – more important – to find comfort and peace and joy with who you are, where you are and what you can do right now – and then ideally, to be able to share that sense of joie de vivre with others, without losing or compromising your own internal sense of balance, integrity and wholeness.

“What you are is what you have been, what you will be is what you do now,” according to Buddha, as quoted by Nischala Joy Devi in “The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras.”

Improve Your Sport Climbing (15): Injuries, Part 9 (HARD)

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So I’m Injured, Now What? (III) – Mental and Emotional Challenges

In addition to physical pain, the mental and emotional aspect of climbing injuries should not be downplayed or underestimated, especially severe injuries that put you squarely on the sidelines for a lengthy period of time and/or call into question your body’s ability to handle what you want it to be able to do (climb!). It’s common to feel depressed, irritable and unmotivated when injured, and it’s also common to feel guilty about having such feelings, e.g. “I don’t have a right to feel depressed; I still have all the normal luxuries of my Western life so I’m just being selfish by having these types of feelings at all.”

While we undoubtedly enjoy an incredible quality of life compared to many other places in the world, one that allows us the indulgence of filling our free time with things like rock climbing, this doesn’t take away from the fact that a sudden decrease in physical activity – and especially one that’s so engaging and consuming as rock climbing (or any similarly pursued athletic endeavor) – can lead to a cascade of mental-emotional impacts, suffered as a result from the abrupt removal of the regular activity level and the consequent mental-physical-emotional disruption. In other words, it’s not just you being a selfish person for feeling badly that you can’t climb; it’s your whole being reacting to the situation – and you feel it in your mind as well as your body. And if you’re going to feel guilty that not climbing is making you feel depressed or down or grumpy, you might as well just feel guilty all the time about climbing even while you can climb, too – the same rules apply; it’s a privilege to have the freedom to climb at all.

So don’t feel badly that you feel badly; this is unproductive and will only make the feeling bad even worse. Instead, try to acknowledge your feelings and accept them as valid, and do what you can to mitigate symptoms and find joy in the process of injury recovery. How to do this will vary for each individual. For some injured folks, being around other climbers or hearing about rock climbing only compounds the sense of depression at not being able to participate (sort of like hanging out and drinking water while all your friends are getting hammered to hilarity on the hard stuff); for others, being around climbing and climbing conversion gets them outside of themselves and helps remind them of what they’re working back toward being able to do.

Another great perspective to keep is to remember that all is not lost – that you will not “lose everything,” which is a common fear for injured climbers/athletes. Depending on how long you’re out, you will lose some fitness, sure, and if you’re out for a substantial time with no climbing-relevant physical activity (a month or longer), you may experience some strength loss, too. But, it takes the body much longer to lose strength gains than it does to make them; the body is reluctant to let go of such hard-fought gains (strength gains take a long time to manifest when compared to endurance gains). Also, once you’ve worn a path into your body once, it’s way easier to get back to that level again than it was to get there in the first place; the body “remembers” where you were (not exactly correct, but a good image/way to think about it). And your brain does remember how to climb, though it may feel rusty at first when you get back. You will not be starting at square one, and you’re likely to get back to where you were before the injury much faster than you might expect.

Staying physically active, as mentioned in the previous entry, is a great way to help decrease withdrawal-from-climbing and concern-about-future-climbing symptoms, as is a proactive rehabilitation/climbing-training plan that is workable without causing further harm while you’re injured. Another coping mechanism is to delve into an entirely different activity (physical or not) that you normally don’t have time to do while you’re climbing but that you’re interested in, like taking an online or community course on a topic of interest, volunteering for a worthy cause, and so forth. Keeping yourself occupied instead of spending your normal climbing/training time perseverating on what you can’t do and feeling sorry for yourself can go a long way to keeping your spirits relatively high, which in turn can actually influence the pace/outcome of your injury in terms of healing time.

“Emerging and converging evidence support the perspective that the mind and body are inextricably linked and function in an integrative manner to mediate the manifestation of maladaptive autonomic nervous system responses (ANS) that can result in symptoms and eventual illness, and in the realm of sports, drive competitive anxiety, reduced attention, diminished motor control and consequent poor performance. … Identifiable mind-body processes and interactions that have been harnessed therapeutically to ameliorate symptoms and promote well-being have also been shown to enhance self-regulation and improve performance.” (from Evidence-Based Applied Sport Psychology: A Practitioner’s Manual, by Roland A. Carlstedt, Ph.D.)

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.

One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!

Improve Your Sport Climbing (15): Injuries, Part 8 (HARD)

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So I’m Injured, Now What? (II) – Physical Training

Assuming your injury is serious enough to warrant a diagnosis and treatment plan from a healthcare professional, get a timeline from this trusted source to help you plan your recovery period and to take the fullest advantage of your time off from climbing as you can in terms of physical fitness maintenance or even potential gains. Ask for an assessment what you can do, given the parameters of your injury. If you don’t like the answer, consult with several more specialists. Ask for healing markers that will indicate if/when you should be doing certain activities, as well as what you should not be doing. Follow the guidelines but don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Above all, do not do anything to make your injury worse. This becomes your No. 1 training/climbing performance goal once an injury has occurred: to heal the injury and get back to 100 percent as quickly as possible. This means not making ill-advised in-the-moment decisions that will impact you negatively for months or even years into the future.

Informed by your healthcare professional’s advice and treatment plan, create a physical training/rehab plan that respects your body’s need to heal. Use the time as efficiently and effectively as possible, understanding that sitting around feeling bad about not being able to climb and concurrently severely decreasing the amount of physical activity you’re doing can contribute to injury-related mental-emotional health issues (topic of next entry), as well as making your comeback harder. Bodies that are used to a high level of physical activity can undergo severe withdrawal on many levels if the customary activity level suddenly declines significantly or stops entirely.

If you can’t do anything at all related to climbing, then work to figure out what works best for keeping yourself fit, maybe another activity entirely. You may also have some mandated physical therapy/rehab exercises; these take top priority in any smart injury-recovery training plan. However, if you can and have the desire to, times of injury can actually provide a much-needed impetus to train specific areas that could use more attention but that fall by the wayside when you’re healthy. A few examples: an injured ankle can often allow for upper-body training, while an injured finger can often allow for core/flexibility training. Instead of fretting about and ruminating on what you can’t do, look at what you can do and do that, knowing that you will be grateful not only now to have something to do physically but also, as you come back to an uninjured state to have kept your physical activity level as high as you could without sabotaging your body’s healing process.

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.

One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!