Will Exercise Give You Victory Over Pain?
Today I’m celebrating another victory over pain!
Pain has been my constant companion since May 20, 2004 at 1:30PM… thankfully it’s been decreasing every year, but yet some remains. A bike ride yesterday is causing me to reflect on how exercise has helped decrease my pain.
Though I had been a runner before the accident, I had rarely gone biking. But after each of my surgeries during the 4 years following the accident, part of my physical therapy included biking on a stationary bike.
In June 2006, following three months in a cast or walking boot after a surgery to stretch my achilles tendon that was shorten by injury, I was back in therapy on a stationary bike and I wondered what biking outside would feel like.
I was unsteady at first, but after a few minutes I got the hang of it again. Guess the saying, “You never forget how to ride a bike” is true. I had been almost dead and had almost lost my leg, but I didn’t forget how to ride a bike.
Soon I was biking a few miles a couple times a week by doing loops around a mall parking lot. It was boring, but easy riding, and was fun when my friends Bev and Bev joined me. Then winter came and the bike was put away.
The next year, I biked occasionally but I didn’t get back into a regular habit of biking again for some time. After another surgery in 2008, I was able to start running again and I decided biking would be good cross training, plus it would be fun because I was stronger and could ride farther.
I bought my own bike and began sprinkling rides in with my runs. Short distances felt okay, but biking uses different muscles than running and the first few times I attempted a longer bike ride, I thought I was going to die!
The motion of biking aggravated some of my injuries in a way that running did not. While the injury on my left calf is my most pronounced injury, thankfully it doesn’t feel as bad as it looks. That ankle and foot give me some pain, but most of the nerves in the left calf are cut, so other than two sensitive spots, the majority of that area is numb.
But my left thigh is another story.
It doesn’t look as bad as the calf area, but it has given me more pain!
I had a deep (into my femur) 15″ long L-shaped laceration starting a few inches above my knee, up to my hip and over across my buttock. (don’t worry, I’m not posting pictures, but you can see the beginning of it on the biking picture) This injury was so severe that my trauma surgeon first considered amputating my leg at the hip, but after evaluating it again the following day, he decided it could be saved.
You know the pins-and-needles feel when your arm falls asleep? As you shake it, the pain intensifies for a few seconds as the nerves reopen, but then all is well again. In this injury, the nerves were not cut as they were in the calf area, but they were damaged and/or compressed. These damaged nerves never fully reopened, so I constantly have various degrees of pins-and-needles pain all over my left thigh.
As I increased my walks, then added running and biking, this pain varied a lot… somedays better, somedays worse. Everything I learned from the research I did into how nerves work and how our bodies heal had me convinced that increased exercise would help it. Because increased circulation increases blood flow which facilities healing. (if you’ve had either personal or medical experience with this, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it)
I’ve written how pain warrants stopping, discomfort does not but sometimes I blurred the line between the two and the discomfort/pain I had in those nerves during and after exercising had me questioning my sanity.
What am I thinking? What am I doing to myself?
What if all this exercise makes me feel worse as I age, not better?
But yet, I kept going.
Because I also realized that if I skipped exercise for a time, not only did my body ache more and my legs get stiff, which would only worsen as I aged, but that black hole of depression would start calling me again.
So I kept walking, running and biking. And a few times in the past two years, I tackled long bike rides (ranging from 35 to 50 miles) with friends who bike, some quite experienced (what was I thinking?) Each time I vowed to myself that I will never bike that far again!
My left thigh would be screaming during the last 10 miles or so and I’d have to slow down significantly. During the one 50-mile ride I attempted, I was in so much pain and was so angry with myself for trying it, that it was all I could do not to fall to the ground in a crumpled heap wailing for help. (definitely crossed the line between discomfort and pain that time)
But with time after each ride my sorry memory would forget the pain when someone mentioned a bike ride, especially if it was on a new trail and I’d hear myself saying, I’ll be there! And without fail, at some point during the ride, I’d begin to wonder if I had serious brain damage that I kept saying yes to long bike rides.
Persistence pays off!
Yesterday I biked 35 miles and while I had the normal pins-and-needles feel a few places, I didn’t have any major pain in my left thigh while I was biking. I could hardly believe it! I rubbed my thigh a few times to see if it had any feeling at all, because not feeling pain from it as I rode had me thinking it went totally numb.
This morning my legs are tired (which is normal for anyone after a long workout) and I still have the pins and needles feel at a few places, but I don’t have any major pain. I’m still shaking my head with a mixture of disbelief and joy!
As I think back over the last year or so since I’ve increased my exercise (and gave my body better fuel, but that’s another post) I realize the pain has been decreasing, but so slowly that it was hardly noticeable at first.
During training for my May marathon, especially during/after the long runs, my whole body ached from the increased time and distance on my feet, so I didn’t notice a decrease in those pain levels.
But after race day, when my body was rested up again, I noticed that pain had decreased. I think the increased circulation from running longer and farther must have forced some of the compressed nerves to open more, which decreased the pain.
Then in June, I’ve started working out with Chris Kaag at Corp Fitness. Those exercises caused me to use muscles I didn’t even know I had! Which made it a constant struggle to find the place where I push myself, but not too hard.
But thankfully most times, I found that place, avoided injury, and my whole body is getting stronger. And I guess stronger allowed those nerves to heal even more which is decreasing the pain more.
So running helps biking and biking helps running and the gym helps both… and they all help me in the rest of life.
Throw in some yoga and the occasional massage and while I’m not totally painfree (actually I assume my pain-o-meter is so skewed that I don’t even know what painfree feels like anymore) I feel better than I had and that’s a victory!
I have a few weeks of tough training ahead of me for the Runner’s World Half on 10/21 and then the New York City Marathon on 11/4, so I’m counting on the fact that thinking through this and writing about it will help me when I don’t feel like giving it my all during a workout.