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Ghosts of Injuries Past – A Torn Rotator Cuff Saga

Posted Sep 08 2009 12:00am

Saturday when I was swimming, I got an old familiar pain in my left arm at lap 48. I was swimming hard, alternating fast 100s with recovery 100s to get ready for next Sunday’s race.

I was in a recovery 100, so I continued for two more laps but when the twingy deltoid muscle pain didn’t go away, I got out of the water, went home and stretched my arm with the exercises I had learned from physical therapy two years ago, along with exercises from a friend who had suffered from shoulder stuff too.

Back to the beginning: In July of 2007, I suddenly started experiencing pain in my left deltoid muscle (about midway between the shoulder and the elbow). It hurt,  but it wasn’t horrible… at first. If I left my arm alone, it didn’t hurt, but if I tried to raise it even to 90 degrees, ouch. Over my head quickly became impossible.

I had no idea really what I could have done to it. I went to the doctor, who figured it was a torn rotator cuff tendon. Based on his assessment, he sent me to an orthopedic. I chose my husband’s orthopedic/pain management doctor because I know her and like her. My husband has a bad back. Her assessment was a torn rotator cuff tendon, which she submitted to the insurance company. By now, three weeks after the original diagnosis, I couldn’t raise my left arm more than 45 degrees. It was basically useless unless I wanted to be in screaming pain.

The wonderful insurance company decided for me that I needed 6 weeks of torture physical therapy before I could have an MRI to find out what was going on  in my shoulder. I made it through 5 appointments before I couldn’t stand it anymore. I’d leave each session in tears and then not sleep for a night or two before the pain before would subside a little. I was literally living on Aleve, just to take the edge off.

Now September of that year, after two full months of not being able to move my arm, the insurance company finally agreed to the MRI. Why was physical therapy so painful? Well, because I had two torn rotator cuff tendons (partial tears that didn’t require surgery, thank goodness), tendonosis (where the tendon around the tears actually died and will never recover), a torn bicep tendon, bursitis and a frozen shoulder. Some of the physical therapy for the torn rotator cuff tendon is counter-productive for the other injuries. My doctor’s colleague chalked it up to the fact that I had a 48-year-old shoulder. Ouch. I think that hurt worse than the shoulder itself. Apparently, torn rotator cuff tendons/frozen shoulders aren’t uncommon in women in their 40s and 50s.

When I started swimming, it was on the advice of my orthopedic doctor (also a triathlete who has had a torn rotator cuff), who said it was one of the best strengthening exercises I could do for my shoulder if I could handle it. While I have my mobility back in that arm, I still have lingering pain. Usually, my shoulder will be a little stiff in the beginning of a swim, but swimming does loosen it up. It took awhile, but swimming generally feels good on my shoulder.

This morning, my shoulder/arm is still achy. It was to be a swim workout today but  I opted out because I won’t risk injuring this arm again. It was the most unbearable pain I can ever remember (and I was in unmedicated labor for 30 hours with my daughter). I believe it was the frozen shoulder that caused the majority of the pain (the membrane sheath that encapsulates the shoulder shrinks up and makes movement difficult) and that’s preventable as long as I keep moving my arm, but even feeling the familiar deltoid muscle pain is enough to send me into a panic.

I have a race on Sunday and I was hoping to get at least one more swim in before then. But if I don’t, at least the swim is the leg of the race where I feel most confident. Even if I swim easy, I’ll do OK in the swim. And in the meantime, I’m hoping that the twingy pain I’ve had in my arm these last couple of days are the result of a tendonosis flare-up and not a new tear. Fingers crossed.

Going from sedentary to active, I’ve taken all of my training pretty slow and steady to avoid injuries. I’d rather go slower than not be able to go at all. I’ll push myself through achy muscles and whiny knees. But this? It’s just not something to be screwing with. I promised myself in the beginning that I would always pay attention when there’s pain.


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