Shouldering a Burden

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog (somewhere?) that I was a competitive swimmer in my youth. I’m not sure that statement really does justice to exactly what swimming meant to me at that impressionable time of my life. In high school, it formed a very large part of my identity. It’s where I made friends. It’s how I gained acceptance in a new school. It taught me to work hard in order to accomplish something. It gave me a place. I even went so far as to try to walk-on to a Division I collegiate program (to no avail) in order to hang on to some of the parts of the sport that I loved just a little bit longer. My main strokes were freestyle and butterfly, and being built the way I am, both of these depended greatly on my thick, strong shoulders. Even in the weight room, I would adjust my bench-press grip in order to better strengthen my shoulders instead of opting for a wide, chest-centric grip like most weightlifters. The butterfly and lat machines were a few of my favorites. When others would fizzle out timing a mile-long butterfly set in practice, I would set my pace, cruise to the finish and be ready for the next set!

A little over a year ago, in one of my many quests to maintain/increase my level of health, I got back into the pool. It was tough, but the first time is always really bad. I think my workout consisted of a standard swim/kick/pull rotation, then a set of 100’s, then maybe a 200 cool down. A mere shadow of the grind I used to participate in when I was 15/16 years old. I had planned to do more swimming, maybe increase the yardage very gradually over a few visits each week, but something unexpected happened. I began to experience shoulder pain. I decided to take it easy and not to return to the pool right away. Perhaps I’d overdone it, as most ex-athletes have a propensity to do when trying to get back into the sport at which they used to excel. It’s a difficult mental situation to be in, comparing your ability at 40 with your ability at 16. It’s tough to accept how far your body has fallen from the peak performance you once enjoyed, so you tend to push it just a little bit too far, which can result in pulled tendons or muscles.

But the pain persisted and after a few more weeks, I went to speak to a physical therapist at the wellness center where Sara works. He put me through a few motions, and determined that it was probably a pulled bicep caused by swimming exertion. He gave me a couple rubber exercise bands and showed me some things that he said would strengthen my shoulder up. I took the bands home, and did the exercises maybe once. They just felt so weenie. I used to bench press 250 pounds and now I was pulling a little stretchy rubber band around. It barely felt like I was doing anything, so I decided rest was the better option.

The pain persisted throughout the summer. Most notably when trying to pull-start the lawn mower. The mower is old, doesn’t have a primer pump, and sometimes takes 15-20 pulls to get it going. Connor and I would take turns, but admittedly I was only able to give it about seven pulls before the pain started to throb. I took it as a warning sign that I should stop pulling. Now I was starting to get a little worried. I didn’t realize how much I used my shoulder for everyday things like carrying groceries, casting a fishing pole, throwing a baseball, or even just turning a steering wheel until I started to get a small twinge of pain with each of these activities.

Slowly, as I started to identify which activities seemed to aggravate the problem and compensate, my shoulder started to feel better. It was much to my chagrin one day this fall when I lifted my arms over my head to remove my shirt and I noticed that my other (left) shoulder was sore. Over the course of time, it seemed to deteriorate as my dominant shoulder improved. What the heck was going on? I’ve been practically sedentary since the weather outside got too bad to run, and even before that I was not using my shoulders for anything strenuous.

As I couldn’t pinpoint a specific incident, like an injury, that might have triggered this pain, I went on with life, occasionally racking my brain for a starting point that would explain my newfound discomfort. I fell hard on my left arm while ice-skating once (the last time I went ice skating), but that was several years ago. Luckily the pain was mostly dull and usually only occurred when making certain movements that I could again avoid or compensate for by using my other arm. But then, something weird happened. We were getting ready to eat one night, and Sara and I were both standing in front of the kitchen island, in front of the cabinets where we keep the dishes. I reached around her to grab a stack of plates for the table, but when put my fingers around them, I couldn’t lift them out of the cabinet. They were at the exact wrong angle for me to get enough strength to lift them above the other plates. These are not heavy plates we’re talking about, either. We don’t use the full-size dinner plates when we eat, opting instead for the “appetizer” sizes in order to help with portion control.  I’ve never had trouble lifting anything so trivial before.

After running my shoulder through a few more tests (trying to lift my laptop bag at work using the same motion, etc.) I realized that I needed to have someone besides a physical therapist look at me. It’s a tough call to make. I’ve been generally pretty healthy my entire adult life, so doctor visits are always kind of awkward, especially when my symptoms are so vague and irregular. Do I tell this guy my life story? Should I mention the ice skating thing from three years ago? Does it really hurt that bad? What if I’m just getting old? What if he runs all kinds of expensive tests and doesn’t find anything?

It was with these hesitancies that I called a local shoulder & orthopedic specialist and made an appointment. In short, I was run through the same barrage of motion tests, and got both an X-ray and MRI on the affected area. Things sure have sped up since I was a kid. Both the X-Ray and MRI images were available immediately upon completion, though I still had to wait until the MRI analyst looked at mine before they would tell me anything. As it turns out, I got good news and bad news. The good news is that there is neither bone nor soft tissue injury requiring any kind of invasive measures. The bad news is that my rotator cuff, the tendon that enables a majority of the movement within the shoulder, is showing signs of slight degeneration. The doctor said I was on the “young side” of someone who has this problem, but that it’s not unheard of. In layman’s terms, my moving parts are starting to wear down. I got a cortisone shot (hey, just like a real athlete!) and will begin some physical therapy soon to try and get me again functioning at a normal level. The bad news is that I can probably look forward to continued pain and flare-ups while the tissue continues to degrade over the rest of my life. In the end, a couple of my doctor-visiting fears did, in fact, come true. We ran all kinds of expensive tests and didn’t find anything out of the ordinary, and the pain is just a result of getting old.

It’s tough when one of your biggest strengths becomes your biggest weakness. It’s difficult to process. Unless the physical therapy does wonders, I’m probably done swimming – for good, this time. I’m ok with that part. If you haven’t put your high school athletic accomplishments behind you by the time you’re 40, maybe it’s time to find a new hobby. I think what’s more difficult is the prospect of gradually getting worse – and of the deterioration starting earlier than I’d expected. Perhaps we reach our “invincibility” peak as a teenager, and then spend the rest of our lives being reminded of how wrong we were. Maybe God is using this opportunity to remind me that nothing is permanent, and to swallow my pride and rely more on Him and on others who He’s placed around me. Maybe it’s a reminder to be thankful for my relatively healthy life. Whatever the case, I’ll try to be more diligent with my rubber bands this time around. Maybe I’ll get a few extra years out of these rusty parts!

Just for fun, my innards:

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