Guest Post: To Treat or Not To Treat? How to Handle Your Martial Arts Injury

black knight

Check out this month’s guest post on BookMartialArts.com:

To Treat or Not to Treat? What to Do With Martial Arts Injuries

This article gets into the mind of the martial artist facing the dilemma of seeking treatment for pain or powering through and not slowing down the training schedule. I’ve been in physical therapy for nearly a year now, so you can guess which path I chose, stubborn as I was about it.

Thinking of starting your own Taekwondo journey? Interested in honing in your martial arts skills? From Kung Fu to Capoeira you can find, browse and book a vast selection of martial arts training camps at BookMartialArts.com, the world’s leading martial arts travel website.

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Finding Balance in a World of Extremes: 3 Tips to Help Ground You

balance

When we think about finding balance in life, the concept of work-life balance often comes to mind, but the concept of balance is applicable to every aspect of our lives. It can feel like, though, we are living in a world that forces us to choose extremes: live the fast-paced urban lifestyle or be an anti-tech hermetic living in one of those innovative and super cute micro-houses. Be a minimalist or max out your credit cards. Be obese in a fast food nation or wear size 0 yoga pants on the gluten-free train. Be a stay-at-home mom or be completely devoted to your career.

Where is the middle ground? Where is the option to dabble and enjoy while remaining grounded and centered?

I am writing this while lying in bed with my feet propped on pillows and an ice pack on my lower back because somehow inexplicably I managed to throw my back out again. The last two times I’ve done it (once when I was moving stuff into a new home and the other time at the gym) I immediately felt the deep flash of pain across my lumbar area when I did the tiniest, most (seemingly) inconsequential movement. It stopped me in my tracks.

This time I have no idea how or when the initial injury happened. My back has been irritated but manageable all week but decided this afternoon it was going on strike. It stiffened up to the point that I resigned myself to making a nest of books, snacks, and my laptop in bed. Now I have to roll around like an upended bug to even sit up. On my last round of getting the ice pack from the freezer it was easier (and faster) to crawl on my hands and knees from my kitchen back to my bedroom.

So what is my body trying to tell me? My poor back is the subject of extremes. I’m either jumping, twisting, running, and moving vigorously in both taekwondo and my physical therapy sessions or I’m sitting stock still for hours at my very nice but unfortunately very sedentary day job (or doing my writing and research activities at home). Funny, just yesterday I read an article on the blog Yoga Dork titled “Sitting is the New Smoking.” Maybe I should have taken a walk and smoked a cigarette instead of sitting for most of the day.

I “balance” the extreme activity and the extreme stillness with gentle back-friendly movement like yoga and swimming, but apparently it wasn’t enough for my lower back to say, “Enough with the Jekyll and Hyde crap, lady! I’m calling it quits!” It’s a rare occurrence for me to just take a stroll down the street. I’m always go-go-go or at a compete stop. In a way I knew this was coming, but I’m grateful it didn’t happen the week of my black belt test.

What are some things you can do to find balance in your life?
1. Cut yourself some slack. Slow down. You can’t do it all, and that’s okay. Prioritize, focus on what is really important, and be proud of your accomplishments.

2. Practice gratitude. Sometimes we can be thrown off balance by the constant pursuit of something that we believe will make us “happy”–more money, a more prestigious title, a more attractive partner, a bigger house, a smaller waist size. Instead of drooling over that BMW in the next lane, be grateful for the transportation you do have. Instead of feeling self-conscious when a gazelle in stilettos walks by, appreciate the body you do have: the healthy lungs that breathe air, the able limbs that keep you mobile and independent, the hopefully healthy back that won’t keep you stuck in your bed like I am this Saturday night. When we are constantly in pursuit of the latest and greatest thing we have no time to appreciate what we already do have. Stop. Slow down. Be grateful.

3. Be present. Oh, so bandied about as the key to everything and oh, so hard to do sometimes. But it works! For me, taekwondo keeps me very focused and present. For others it may be knitting, petting a cat, reading a book, or simply looking out the window. Whatever keeps you from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future will keep you grounded and in turn, keep you balanced.

Now what?
Thanks to my brother’s recommendation, I use the meditation website Headspace. Ironically, I’d just started a new 30-day “pack” on finding balance. Apparently my back was in on the cosmic joke. I’ll be doing my little meditation session once I upload this blog post.

Be grounded, be balanced, and be well. I’d offer a virtual hug, but I’m in too much pain right now.

Operation Fix My Hip Begins

kitten massage

So yeah this kind of has something to do with the post. I just used it mostly because it has cute kitties.

It felt appropriate that Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was playing as I drove to my first physical therapy session. After all, most of the pain I’ve been experiencing for the last two months has been “in the back of my Honda,” and I don’t mean my 2014 Accord. I was both excited and a little nervous. While I was ready to put a lot of effort into healing I wondered if I’d have to go through even more pain and discomfort to get there, and I also wondered how much I would have to modify my taekwondo practice.

Short answer…yeah, all of that, kinda. After the thumping beats of the rap song died down I arrived at the sports medicine clinic. I filled out the forms about where it hurts and what makes it feel worse or better and waited for my appointment.

“I’m back!” I cackled, and grabbed my PT Cody* into a back-slapping hug. I first met Cody about eight years ago to treat debilitating anterior hip pain that made sitting, driving, and doing just about anything else extremely painful. Even running was out of the question. He treated me mostly with core strengthening exercises and minor spine and pelvis adjustments, and after that I ran my first half-marathon. I knew if anyone could fix my hip it was Cody.

We were joined in the exam room by a shy PT student who was shadowing Cody for the day. Cody got right down to business and began running his fingers up and down my spine, poking my sacrum, and having me lie on an exam table while he twisted my legs around to check the alignment and see when the impingement was starting to really hurt in the right hip. He hummed the names of the muscles and tendons he was poking as if he were reciting a prayer. Finally he found a spot that was apparently asking for his attention and began to gently massage it and apply pressure.

“I’m going to work on her psoas muscle,” Cody said calmly as he eyed the shy student. “The art of therapy is knowing when to stop and work on something. As a student you might tend to compartmentalize–first take the history, then the objectives…no, there needs to be a flow to it.” He sank his fingers deeper into the side of my hip, which made me wince and inhale sharply. I felt shocked, curious, and disgusted at the same time. When he did a little fishhook move with his finger towards the ilium (that big bone in the front of the pelvis) I felt like he could have disemboweled me.

“Just keep breathing,” Cody said soothingly as he continued to do what I imagine a splenectomy must feel like. Thankfully it was over in a minute or two and he twisted my legs around again. As if by magic the pinching in the front of my hip was less severe.

I ended up on my stomach while Cody continued his lesson.

“See? Here’s the piriformis,” Cody said to the student as he poked the left side of my bottom. (You guys, I was wearing pants, don’t even go there!) “It’s a LOT stronger on this leg, one of the strongest I’ve ever seen. There’s a big difference between the left and the right.”  Hmm, interesting. I knew I was getting more junk in my trunk throughout my training, especially in the last few months. Skirts cling tighter in that area, and I’ve started to look like a little T-Rex, but apparently it’s lopsided. Not sure if Sir Mix-A-Lot would approve.

“Wait a minute!” I said, my voice half-muffled by the pillow. “How can that be? I’m so right-leg dominant! I’m right-handed. My kicks are better on the right. I thought I was stronger on my right leg.”

“You KICK a lot with your right leg,” Cody answered, “but you’re standing on your left leg while you’re doing all of that. If you favor kicking on your right then that builds up your standing leg and you have a really strong foundation. Your right leg is a lot weaker, maybe because you’re overcompensating for the long-time hip pain with the left leg, so you have nothing to hold you up when you kick with the left leg.”

THAT’S why my left leg kicks suck so much…” I mused and rested the side of my face back down on the pillow.Then I twisted my head around to face the student, who by this time looked a little green.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I chirped. “He’s explaining everything, and you’re asking all the questions I don’t know how to ask. We’re learning at the same time!” The student nodded his head politely and looked like he was trying not to think too hard about the fact that for the past twenty minutes he had been staring directly at my derrierre while Cody poked and prodded me.

After doing a few warm up and strengthening exercises I returned to the table where Cody sank his fingers back into my hip flexor.

“Ewww, I feel like your finger is going to go through to the table,” I meweled, trying not to let myself be overcome by nausea or worse, a hysterical fit of laughter if I dared let myself think about how much it tickled.
“It might go through all the way to the floor,” Cody murmured quietly and dug his fingers in even deeper.

I went to sparring class later in the evening and after getting the green light from Grandmaster and my instructor, I hung back. My hip ached with just the fast-paced warmups we did, so I knew I’d better take my doctor’s and therapist’s warnings to take it easy seriously.  I focused more on coaching rather than fighting although I did chase around a few kids and them punch me in the stomach. I enjoy coaching and teaching quite a bit, so I was happy to shift gears. It gives me that nurturing fix that I need, plus it helps me improve my own taekwondo skills by giving me a different and more intellectual perspective of the sport.

“You don’t have the body you had at eighteen anymore,” one of the masters teased after class, reminding me that I needed to go slow for a while and care for my injury.
“But in my head I am!” I joked before stumbling out into the darkness.

So that’s how my life will be for the next two months: that balance between staying active and playing it safe. My yoga teacher always says smart yogis modify; they listen carefully to their bodies. I’d like to think that’s what smart black belts do too.

*Name changed

Body Image

body image

For the last few days I have done absolutely nothing. The pain that I’ve been experiencing during and after taekwondo classes will not let up and even flares up with gentler physical activities such as swimming and yoga. In fact, in last Sunday’s yoga class I ended up going to my knee for every Warrior I, crescent lunge, and even Warrior II. Somewhere between Sun Salutation B and savasana I decided that I needed to rest.

I didn’t go down without a fight though. Immediately after deciding that I would take a little break from taekwondo the controlling little busybody in my brain said, “Well maybe we could do that gentle stair-steppy thing that doesn’t make us do any foreword motion with the legs or do Pilates every day because we still are a little too pudgy around the middle and, and maybe we could just lift weights and focus on the upper body, and maybe we could do a hardcore diet during the week, and maybe swim even though it hurts and–”

Wait a minute! I was still trying to punish myself for not having the body that I thought I needed to have to be happy. I was still trying to keep tabs on myself even though my body was telling me to chill out and rest. Yes I was very frustrated by the pain, but in a sick way it bothered me more that it kept me from my normal means of controlling myself. I have had a poor body image and mild eating disorders since I was in high school. That is twenty years of hating myself for not being “perfect.”

Some people reading this might think, “What’s the big deal? Just eat less and exercise more, duh.” Yes, in theory, it’s simple, but for those who have certain mental disorders, eating disorders, or low self-esteem, it’s agonizing. We feel like our bodies are these evil foreign blobs conspiring against us when our brains desperately want to be thin. In reality it’s the opposite: our brains are going haywire while our poor bodies can’t keep up.

“All right, that’s it, enough!” I thought as my yoga classmates and I stretched into tree pose. “I’m not doing ANYTHING for the next few days. I’m going to sit on my ass and rest. See how you like THAT!” I was going to force myself to face the discomfort of not being on the endless loop of exercising and watching what I eat.

And that’s exactly what I did. I went off the grid for four days, which isn’t much, but for me is a long time to go without any form of exercise. I DID go on a walk Tuesday night and did my forms in super-slow motion Thursday night, but that was about it. I slept in and used my extra morning time to read and lounge around in bed, I got caught up on my Netflix queue, I cleaned the house and worked on writing projects, and I spent a lot of time with my ice pack. I baked chocolate chip cookies and took myself out for frozen yogurt topped with candy. I knew I was getting a little rounder–I could feel it. ugh–but I took it in stride. I’ll get back to my routine of taekwondo and brown rice and vegetables and eventually deflate. I just ate another cookie and thought, “I love you, and I’m going to take care of you.”

I went back to taekwondo class last night and had trouble sleeping from the lingering little jolts of pain from the kicking we did in class. At one point I had to switch to just using my left leg during drills. As I drove home I thought that perhaps I should rethink the right leg hook kick I plan on using to break during my black belt test. I finally conceded to contacting a sports medicine doctor. Obviously a month and a half of pain and injury can’t be undone by four days of rest and cookies. It’s frustrating to not be able to do what I know I can do…but maybe slowing down is exactly what I need.

Body image and how I treat myself will be a lifelong struggle. It and all the problems that come with it have clung to me in secret for decades. That’s a hard habit to shake. Taekwondo has been a real life-saver in that area. Sure I’m a little bulkier (that is a good thing; I like the muscular look) and have much-improved cardiovascular strength because of it, but mentally I’m in better shape too. Who cares how big my ass looks in my dobok? I’m too busy kicking yours!

I’m sure one day I will be shaking my head at how I used to make myself miserable over the facts that I don’t have a flat stomach or that my upper thighs stick together. Someday the aches and pains of age will overshadow the superficial looks of youth. I’ll probably give anything in the future to have the body I have now. Right now I’d give anything to make the pain go away so I can have my ass-kicking body back, no matter what it looks like or how much I weigh. I might as well love what I have now before it’s too late.