Hamstrung -- or a Humbling Lesson in Healing

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

To: Readers.

From: Scribe.

Re: Long-awaited news. (No, I wasn't fired; so put away that confetti). After, oh, somewhere around three months, 15 days, 21 hours and 17 minutes, I hereby proclaim that my torn hamstring has healed.

It's not that I expect readers to give two figs about my health and fitness (except you, Mom), but there's wisdom here for anyone who's ever soldiered through an extended recovery or might one day (surprise!) stumble onto this road.

To recap: I suffered a hamstring tear (mid-grade 2, on the 1-to-3 scale) on May 13 at 10:43:22 a.m. (give or take half a second) while attempting to jump for a Frisbee. I could walk -- with pain -- but could do almost nothing else involving my leg. My doctor prescribed physical therapy and predicted a full recovery in around a month.

Early on, my treatment consisted mostly of electric stimulation, ultrasound, massage, stretching and icing. While that may sound almost pleasurable, before the injury I was exercising five to six days a week -- willingly -- and all those fancy words in the prior sentence translate, roughly, to "involuntary rest."

The first month was like quitting cigarettes or stupid puns: I was so exercise-addicted that I would instinctively don shorts, T-shirt and sneakers, and stand near my door, longingly peering out. Eventually I'd sit down, maybe try to read, but self-pity would progress first to irritability, then uncontainable impatience.

So I sought out long-avoided low-impact house projects -- fixing a hinge, sanding a window frame, cleaning a year's worth of dead bugs out of the light fixtures -- but even these seemingly innocuous tasks invariably engaged my hamstring.

Whenever I turned suddenly or stooped or contorted to reach some household fixture, my hammy would wince and the ghosts of Moving Crew columns past would swarm: "Muscles fibers contract instinctively to stabilize the body. . . . Muscles in the back balance those in the front. . . . Rest your injury or it will never heal, meathead."

For a while the physical therapy was on track: Within weeks I advanced from the "Everything hurts, even complaining" phase to "Hey, I only feel it when I move!" and then "I bet I can run again." (Too soon. Bad wager.) Expert reaction ranged from "Perhaps you tried to rush recovery" to "You're an idiot, Briley. Now sit down."

Reluctantly, I committed to rest. No asterisks, footnotes or qualifiers, just rest, augmented by a revised physical therapy program. (Even my physical therapist seemed baffled at the persistence of the injury.) When I absolutely needed some physical challenge, I did push-ups, sit-ups and even got into a pool a few times to swim laps using only my upper body.

But these were fleeting bursts and, at some point, I realized I had become a sedentary American. My after-work routine no longer involved staring longingly at my hoop shoes. I finally had insight into how millions of people live with minimal exercise.

My other revelation? Resting an injury really works. The low murmur of pain in my leg receded to a faint whisper, then nothing. Gingerly, my therapist worked me back into light leg lifts, some specialized exercises, then fast walking on a treadmill.

Now it's time to make good on my May pledge to enroll in yoga classes, to slowly re-strengthen my leg and work smarter to keep this 40-year-old body in tune. I'd like to say that I'm also going to let more Frisbees pass by unmolested, but I know myself better than that. ยท

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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