Since starting gymnastics training with a proper coach, I’ve become the strongest version of myself ever. I’ve had a long run of injury free fun and training, but this lucky streak came to an end last Sunday when I heard a “pop” and fell to the ground during a “back lever” on the rings. I had torn my distal biceps tendon. (Where it attaches at the elbow.) This is the first of a series of articles about my experience with the injury, my research on tendon healing, and everything I learned in the process.
Here’s an example of a back lever. I swear I nailed this move about a split second before searing pain put my face in the dirt.
What I did immediately after the injury. (Date of injury: April 23, 2017)
I knew this was going to be bad. I heard 2 distinct pops and felt serious and “wrong” lengthening of my arm musculature. Pain was intense and I was scared. What happened next:
- My training partner nearly vomited when she heard the deafeningly loud “pop”. She understood what this meant before I did. I was dazed while she processed the implications of my being unable to train for a while, which typically turns me into an asshole. (A scary thought for all parties involved.) For a few moments, I stayed in the dirt staring at my arm in confusion.
- Within minutes, adrenaline was raging and fear was coming on strong. I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t focus. In the midst of feeling a severe panic attack coming on…
- I ran six 40 meter hill sprints. At the time, I justified this action to myself with an admittedly sub-par thought process: “I shouldn’t completely waste the pre-workout I drank 20 minutes prior. Wasted pre-workout is the devil’s work.” These sprints hurt my arm badly, so I had to make sure to cradle my arm carefully against my rib cage. Running all out sprints with that much adrenaline pumping through my body was an unforgettable experience. These sprints probably increased internal bleeding and edema at the injury site. I will later learn this was a blessing and a curse.
- I called my gymnastics coach, who urged me to see a doctor.
- I called my injury recovery coach. He told me to come in the next day.
- I rested the arm completely until further review.
Day 2: Waiting for answers.
The morning sucked, as expected. (First morning is always the worst for injuries.) Swelling and pain were intense. My actions:
- Saw my injury recovery coach, (also a Doctor) at 8 a.m. Coach ordered an MRI.
- Completely rested the arm and the rest of my body except for cautious range of motion exercises.
- Compression wrap every few hours for 20 minutes, then release compression.
- No ice. No ibuprofen.
- Waiting for answers is like torture.
Day 3: MRI
MRI report: “There is a moderate amount of edema surrounding the distal fibers of the biceps tendon. At the level of the distal biceps insertion on the radial tuberosity there appears to be a moderate to high-grade partial tear. Some intact fibers land on the radial tuberosity while some fibers are ill-defined and minimally retracted.”
This news is devastating and means there is a very real chance I will need surgery to repair this tendon. My actions:
- I research the surgery, which I learn has a 5 month recovery time.
- I break down and weep on my bathroom floor for 30 minutes. Surgery would mean complete immobilization for 6 weeks. (Emotional triggers: No upper body training, no squat, no piano, no guitar, atrophy, imbalance, possible nerve damage.)
- I schedule appointments with orthopedic surgeons.
- I focus on sleep and nutrition.
- I go to gym and train legs like there is no tomorrow.
- I eat like crazy and sleep 10 hours.
Day 4: Meeting with surgeon 1
- Surgeon is unclear about prognosis: Too much blood in the MRI image makes it difficult to see distal insertion. Additional damage is noted at the musculotendinous junction, which was the best news I heard all day. The musculotendinous junction can heal itself. The distal insertion on the bone cannot heal itself.
- Surgeon says surgery is not possible at this time because of damage at the musculotendinous junction. His words: “It would be like trying to sew together two pieces of hamburger”. Not the words I was looking for.
- I need someone to tell me how much damage is at the insertion, so I schedule another appointment with a different surgeon. Will someone please look at this MRI and tell me WTF is wrong with my arm?
- I go to gym and train the right half of my upper body. People at the gym look puzzled.
- I spend 30 minutes in the sauna at searing heat to stimulate growth hormone production.
- I eat like it’s the last meal of my life and sleep 10 hours.
Day 5: Meeting with surgeon 2
- Surgeon #2 says MRI image is insufficient to properly diagnose the injury due to excessive blood and fluid in the area. (Damn those sprints I ran.) Surgeon #2 does not recommend surgery as he feels the tendon is partially attached to the bone and stray fibers will scar to surrounding fibers. Surgeon #2 also says my arm will never be as strong as it was before.
- I don’t like that answer, so I schedule appointment with third surgeon, who can’t see me for 5 days. Shit. I’m sick of waiting for answers.
- I go to the gym and train legs like I’ve lost my mind. Julia loads plates for me since I cannot do so myself. Other people in the gym are giving me that look, like “this guy is a nut job”. I collapse in a pile of nauseous emotion.
- I take a 30 minute sauna for growth hormone stimulus.
- I spend hours researching this injury, becoming more depressed by the mouse click.
Day 6, 7, and 8: Waiting, reading, feeling scared.
I keep moving, stretching, sleeping as much as possible, and paying special attention to my diet. I am now eating for injury recovery, which is like eating for gains, but more cautious. I am doing mental battle constantly. My thoughts often drift to the worst, but I gently bring them back and focus on what is in my control. This process is tortuous, but I am getting better at it. My actions:
- I meditate twice a day.
- I massage the torn bicep area for increased blood flow.
- I move the injured arm within the pain threshold.
- I begin a massive research project on the body’s process of tendon healing.
- I place a sticky note on my piano and on my guitar that reads, “Attention! This may be your last day to play.” I cannot properly fret the guitar above the 3rd fret due to lack of supination strength.
- Strangely, my piano playing improves dramatically.