Friday, July 27, 2007

Physically Therapeutic

In the first days of September, 1996, my Dad and I were playing our 35th hole of golf with his regular buddies - I was the "outsider" (though always made to feel like a lifelong member) on a group of guys that had been golfing usually twice a week for years and years, and were a constant riot. My Dad - he was one hilarious dude. Sometime I'll tell you more stories. Also, he could smash a golf ball. After a weekend of water skiing and golf, I was spending these last few holes trying to out-drive him. Sometimes I did, barely - usually I didn't. On this tee box, 2nd to last of the day, a water hazard awaits just beyond the box. I'd played this course since I was old enough to golf - 8 or 9, I suppose. That water hazard was home to many a ball with my name on it.

I reared back - I've always had excellent form on my swing, even if I have a horrible slice - and swung with everything I had. I smashed the ball - best drive of the day. But - I felt a tiny slip in my lower left back. Nothing painful, just out of the ordinary, and different. We packed into the carts to head after our respective hits, and I decided I'd better back off a little on the next drive.

We were playing a skins game - where the lowest score on each hole is the winner of that hole (I think for $.25/hole), and as we approached the final green of the day, on the 36th hole, my ball was about 5 feet from the pin, and I'd be putting for par, and the skin. We joked about who'd be buying beer at the end of the round as the other guys putt in. I was the 2nd to last guy to putt, and I carefully leaned over my ball to concentrate on making the putt. Very suddenly, and totally to my surprise, my legs went right out from under me. It was as though somebody had struck the back of my knees and my legs just crumpled, and I fell in an awkward heap to the ground. There was no pain - just total surprise that suddenly I was lying on the ground when a moment ago I was looking down at a golf ball. The green lay right in front of the clubhouse, and it was a strange place for somebody to be suddenly lying there. A few guys joked from the clubhouse to "cut 'im off! He's had enough!" Everybody started laughing - because it was funny - and I started laughing too. And that is when my back exploded into a searing sympony of agony. Immediately my laugh halted in mid-breath and I shrieked in pain. And suddenly it wasn't funny to any of us, and everybody looked around in total confusion. Whatever this was, it wasn't making sense.

My back was spasming so violently that I could barely talk. This was a tremendous hurt, the kind of pain that redefines your scale of how bad something really is. Everything I did, the slightest movement, aggravated the muscles on my lower left side to clench into angry fists, and I'd feel the pain all the way back in my teeth. I was 22 years old, and my Dad had to carry me to the car. I had to "lay" - which was more propped up at an awkward half-lay, half-sit position - in the back seat just to function. We raced home, and Dad carried me into the house and I lay down on the floor while he called a doctor. It was an effort to find any kind of temporary relief, nevermind comfort. I spent the next two days in generally that same position, and my parents had to feed me, assist me in every way, even help me into the bathroom and back - to walk without total pain, I had to lean way back, have somebody supporting me, and only walk on my tip-toes. It was maddening.

I was due to fly back to school in Boston 3 or 4 days later, and underwent intense therapy for the next few days just to try and get to a place where that was at all possible. Three times daily I'd visit a chiropractor, as well as my regular doctor and a massage therapist. My muscles were literally stiff as bone. Whatever injury I'd suffered back there, all of my muscles were working overtime to protect themselves from it. The whole ordeal was excruciating.

Side-note... that was the last time I ever golfed with my Dad. He died three and a half months later. I've never known quite how to feel about that. That being the last time golfing with him, I mean.

Anyway, it would seem, some 11 years later, that this trauma has continued to haunt my body, and in the opinion of the physical therapist I began work with yesterday, may be the cause of not just my knee issue this season, but a lot of weird, left-sided weakness and instability that I didn't even know I had. She began with a complete history, and I limited that to mostly the last three years of training. She had a look at me in different positions of standing, then asked me if I'd had any kind of injury to the left side of my back - so...something about me is obvious in that way to the trained eye. At first it didn't occur to me to share something that happened so long ago, but then I indicated that, yes, I'd had a really horrible back-spasm issue there once. She was immediately intrigued, so I told her the whole story, and how if I stop working out now for even a few weeks I have aggravation on that side - soreness, stiffness. That if I keep working out I don't have any back problems, but otherwise I sometimes have to deal with it a bit. Throughout the course of the appointment she kept doing the math, and seems pretty confident that this one thing in my life is the source of a lot of real and potential problems. That's weird for me - like being told scar tissue from a cut when you were a kid is affecting how you live as an adult. Strange how the body doesn't forget.

She was a great therapist and a really cool woman. About my age, I think, fun and light-hearted. I didn't feel like I was among a sterile medical professional, but just a cool person who knew more about stuff than I did. I liked that. She had me do a few tests, then, and I was - like I was at my original appointment when they ran a few physical tests - totally shocked at the apparent differences that I hadn't been aware of in my symmetry. When I stand on my left leg, for instance, my right hip drops down. Plain as day. Not so standing on my right leg - the right side of my back is strong enough to support the muscles required to keep my opposite hip aligned. Fascinating. I laid down on my stomach, and she pressed on the muscles in my lower back, first on the right side, then the left, just to loosen up a bit. It was not a massage, she just pressed down. We were chatting through this when she got to my left side, and in mid sentence she stopped and said, in surprise, "ooh..." - I'd felt it too. Like an angry ghost, my muscles on that side immediately spasmed slightly around her fist. This happened through half-way up my back - she'd press, we'd both feel a tightening. I pictured the muscles back there as some angry old creatures protecting some ancient precious. Ever after all this time, whatever happened back there, they were conditioned to respond. It felt alien.

We did a test where I reached back with my right hand, elbow up, and grabbed the back of my neck. G'head, try this. Then you reach up with your left hand, elbow down, and reach to kind of scratch your back between the shoulder blades. Then, try and reach both hands to touch each other. On the one side - no problem, I could link fingers, even. On the other - my hands were almost a foot away from each other. I was totally blown away - it was like watching somebody else's body on the one side. Nothing worked the same. How I'd managed this long without either knowing this huge lack of symmetry existed, or getting injured much earlier, is a mystery.

But then, she had me do some simple stretches. And that was equally as surreal. We'd do an exercise, find a major problem area, and then do some kind of stretch. Sometimes the stretch didn't obviously correlate to the problem. After stretching, we'd do the exercise again, and suddenly things worked. By the end of the appointment, in fact, I could do that finger-grab-behind-your-back exercise just as well with the opposite side - an entire foot of inflexibility suddenly accounted for. Insane!!!! In fact, when I left, my whole body just felt loose and comfortable in a way I don't think I've ever experienced before. It was like walking in somebody else's much more flexible body. Even the weird shoulder issues I've had since before Ironman, and which I've been choosing to not address until after this knee thing is situated - suddenly felt so much better.

All from stretching.

Who knew? And can you imagine the possibilities? Swim, bike, and run could be a whole different game in a body that was more able to play the right way.

So, we've got 3 more appointments planned through mid-August, and I have homework to do the stretching twice a day at home. Next time we'll work in more exercises. At the end of this, I should have a lot more flexibility, stability, and equilibrium that I didn't even know I was missing. How exciting.

Meanwhile, a solid weekend planned - hopefully an open water swim, and my longest time on the bike so far (30 miles, which is a far cry from a century, I know, but hey, Rome wasn't built in a day, as they say. A month ago I was hardly on my bike at all!) Stay tuned. All seems possible.

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