Ryan Zimmerman should take his shots, but be aware of the consequences


Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman breaks his bat on a hit in the eighth inning of Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)

On June 24, Ryan Zimmerman had the Shot Heard ’Round the Beltway — the cortisone shot, that is. He also broke out of a terrible slump. He has hit five homers since and raised his average from .218 to .243 — not Zimmerman-like numbers, but getting there.

And of course, the cry has gone up — cortisone for everyone!

Always a trend-setter, I was a week ahead of Zimmerman, getting a little Hi-C in my right thumb. It’s felt so good since, I’ve broken three space bars on my keyboards. Thumb-wrestling? Tiddlywinks? Bring it.

Cortisone is a wonderful thing because it reduces inflammation, and that makes the pain go away, or at least makes it manageable. And that is all it does. Those who think this is a long-term solution for Zimmerman, or even a great idea, need to take a deep breath. This probably can work for the remainder of the season, but it’s not without risks. And the second the season ends, something else will have to be done.

Meantime, he can probably get by on shots. Cortisone will help mask the pain and allow for easier joint movement. But when the effects wear off, the problem still will be there — and there might be more problems than before.

I don’t have a lot in common with professional athletes, but I have this: shoulder surgeries (plural) and plantar fasciitis. I was first introduced to cortisone when I suffered from the latter. For two years, I went to physical therapy, wore orthotics, all the usual things you do to try to get rid of plantar, which hurts like holy heck. And I got cortisone shots directly in my heel. Which also hurt like holy heck, because my orthopedic surgeon moved the needle around to try to rupture the plantar, so I wouldn’t have to have surgery. By the time he finished, he looked like he was going to throw up. I was fine. Poor man, he has a low threshold for my pain.

The shots would work until they didn’t, so finally he operated, and I’ve never had a day of pain in my heel since. That was 13 years ago. I certainly developed an appreciation for the ailment, though. At the Olympics in Athens in 2004, I had a reporter who came down with plantar fasciitis. (Because of medical privacy laws, I can’t name him.) I gave him all kinds of advice, but he cured himself when he stepped on a television camera cable at the swimming competition and felt something snap. It hurt dreadfully — and the next morning, he was fine.

(This was the same Olympics at which Mike Wilbon developed some sort of thrombosis, the British media threatened to beat up Style writer Peter Carlson, and a child spit on me when I offered her a collector’s pin. Gosh, I miss Greece.)

I’ve had cortisone shots in my back and in my shoulder, for tendonitis. When an MRI exam revealed a torn rotator cuff and my poor ortho went in with a scope, he found a mess. Every muscle was torn, including my biceps; bones had to be shaved. That may be what Zimmerman faces: bone shaving, not a torn rotator cuff, because while I could live with a torn cuff, Zimmerman, in his job, could not.

This pains me to say — and not because I need a shot — but let’s all be cautious in our love affair with cortisone. It reduces inflammation, period. It cures nothing. And it can have long-term repercussions. One is osteoporosis. (Oh, and to be clear: Yes, it’s a steroid. No, it’s not banned, because it’s not a performance-enhancer. It reduces inflammation. It does not build muscle. It does not increase endurance. In rare cases, it can actually thin muscle tissue.)

That said, with my left arm in a sling, my right thumb became so painful I almost couldn’t stand it. We had planned to do the shot while I was under anesthesia for the left shoulder operation — to spare poor Dr. Connell — but we both forgot. So we did it “live.” A cortisone shot in a good, meaty area such as the hip or shoulder isn’t terrible. A cortisone shot in a small, bony site hurts a bit. My hand was almost paralyzed for a day, and now it’s good. Once the shoulder heals, I’ll need a longer-term solution for whatever is wrong with my thumbs.

But if Zim can make it to the end of the season — wherever the end may be — then so can I. There is no cortisone shot, however, that will help Nats fans get through the second half of the season, when watching the standings goes from a quick glance in the mornings to a furrowed-brow, thousand-yard stare. Slumps are coming. Homestands that looked easy a month ago will go awry. Fans will go from bliss to agony in a heartbeat, and while there are drugs out there that can produce that effect — so I'm told — there isn’t a cure for it when the disease is a pennant race. Welcome to the big leagues, Washington. Unlike Zimmerman (and me), you’re on your own.

For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton

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