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My Athletic Injuries

A journal of my experiences with injuries acquired while running, cycling and hiking and playing ultimate for fifteen years

updated (first published 2008)
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com

Many PainScience.com readers and customers are curious to about my personal experiences are with sports and sports injuries. Perhaps some of are wondering: is this guy just a bookworm? Is he an “armchair therapist”? What does he really know about competing? What does he know about pushing himself?

Oh, I know a thing or two. 😜 I am not elite or hardcore, and I have never been seriously injured in my life. I have never had a fracture, never “blown” a knee. But I have played ultimate for 20 years, and I’ve been regularly running, cycling, and/or hiking for even longer, and I’ve had my fair share of wounds. Worst of all so far, I did “blow” my shoulder, a full-on acromioclavicular sprain in the summer of ‘08, and a great learning experience (or, as they say, “another ^%@*!!$ growth opportunity”).

I’ve lost whole seasons and felt as much emotional pain as physical pain at being kept from training and playing. I’ve been too badly hurt to walk (knees and quadriceps), too damaged to sleep on one side for three months (torn rib cartilage).

I’ve had to take numerous breaks from work. I once completely lost my temper — probably the most upset I’ve ever been all at once — when I re-sprained my thumb for the third time in as many months. That injury caused permanent damage to the most valuable appendage a massage therapist has: it has never been the same since.

It seems like I’ve had tendinitis in just about every tendon in my body. I’ve had cramps in every muscle in my body — all at once even! I suffered a nearly full-body “super cramp” after a couple hours sprinting on a hot summer night with a careless lack of electrolyte supplementation — first my calves went rigid, then my hamstrings, and as I tried to stretch them out … wham, my abdominals seized up! True story: it is not possible to stretch both the backs of your legs and your abs at the same time. The cramping spread to several other muscles before slowly easing. That was a rough night.

So, yes, I really do know a thing or two.

About playing ultimate

I play a sport called “ultimate” — which sounds goofy if you’ve never heard of it. Ultimate is a frisbee sport. In terms of intensity, it’s about like soccer — non-stop sprinting! The level of fitness it requires to play well is extreme. I don’t always (er, never) feel like my own fitness level is actually “extreme,” but I often have to remind myself that what I consider to be just another normal day of playing ultimate would be pretty much impossible for anyone who wasn’t in pretty good shape.

I play ultimate hard and fairly well. I’m not the best by a long shot — lordy, no — but I can more or less keep up with some of the best. In a tall person’s sport, that’s truly not bad for a short guy in his late thirties.

Thumb sprain, Spring 2010: Sometimes I wonder, ‘Why is that frisbee getting bigger?’ Then it hits me!

Just started training for another season of ultimate.

Ow.

I have never started training this out of shape, or this old. These are not exaggerations. I have literally never been this old ever before. And I have literally never been this out of shape before.

I’m out of shape, of course, because I just had the most stressful winter ever, including experiences so incredibly awful and challenging that you can’t really ever laugh about them, except you have to, because what else are you going to do? I drank heavily at times, I often barely slept, and for a month my only sport was “worry” and it was an extreme sport. My wife’s car accident completely redefined hardship for me. I got into the big leagues of crap luck.

So when I went for my first run of the year, a pathetic 12-minute slog …

Ow.

The DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) was fierce, like a 2-day brush fire in my musculoskeletal system. From a 12-minute run! But I recovered, and ramped up to half hour runs over the next couple weeks, and then took a leap of faith and played actual ultimate for an hour.

Ow.

Big mistake. There’s a physiological chasm between “30 minutes of jogging” and “60 minutes of sprinting and sharp turns at competitive intensity.” Another 2-day brush fire through my muscles …

And the next time out, barely recovered from the DOMS, I got properly injured. I was sprinting towards a frisbee. The frisbee was whipping towards me. The initial point of contact was the tip of my thumb.

Ow.

I re-sprained my 1st carpometacarpal joint, the big thumb joint. It is swollen, it’s a pretty shade of purple, and I could not pinch anything to save my life. This is an injury I have now had at least “many” times before, but this is probably the worst incident since the first one in 1997. Once a body part is sprained, it is easier to sprain again — and with each re-injury it gets more like something you wish would not happen ever again.

Here we go again!

Iliotibial band syndrome, 1998-1999: the most stubborn overuse injury I’ve ever had

One of the best-selling tutorials on PainScience.com is about a runners’ knee injury, the iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) tutorial. ITBS is my own most serious and stubborn repetitive strain injury. (The runner-up was Achilles tendinitis — bad, but not nearly as bad.)

I got ITBS from running down a mountain with a heavy backpack. Then I was sort of attacked by a grizzly bear, which didn’t really help matters. The story is recounted in the IT band syndrome tutorial. For a long time after that, I couldn’t play ultimate, or couldn’t play it properly, or couldn’t play it for long.

It has been quite a long time, several years now, since I had any more difficulty with it — but to this day I am wary of playing ultimate for more than 3 or 4 hours, because I know the old injury could come roaring back. It’s done it before, after long periods of being dormant. I know it lurks somewhere under the surface, waiting for the right conditions!

Acromioclavicular joint sprain, 3rd degree, summer 2008

My worst ever traumatic injury so far: not a fracture, but probably worse. Sprains are ligament tears, and ligament does not heal very well — nowhere near as well as bone. A bad sprain can wreck a joint permanently.

2008 was the first time I ever played with some elite players. The Ultimate World Championships were here in Vancouver that year, and two of the Canadian national teams won (we’re very good at ultimate, here in Canada). Some of those players turned up regularly at a casual pick-up game, and I got to play with them, and I pushed myself hard to avoid embarrassment. Sometimes I even succeeded.

I got hurt in the last moment of the last game of the summer, trying to stop the last point. I was chasing a much better player. I leaped more or less all the way over him trying to smack the disc down before he caught it to score. I missed. We both came crashing down in a heap. I fell quite a distance and came down on the tip of my right shoulder, completely ripping some of the ligaments that hold the outer end of the clavicle to the front of the shoulder blade, the acromioclavicular joint.

It didn’t feel like much, actually. I’d heard that about bad sprains — that ruptures are fairly painless, because the torn tissue is free and no longer being pulled on. I walked away feeling a bit dazed and stiff, not realizing that a nightmare had just begun.

The shoulder stiffened up quite a bit over the next hour, but I still didn’t realize how badly I’d been hurt for a few days. But a fierce ache slowly settled in … and didn’t stop for about six months. For at least three months, the pain was more or less constant, and then for many months after that I couldn’t sleep on my right side at all.

At some point in those long, sleep-deprived months, I transitioned from the direct pain of the trauma to a base case of shoulder muscle pain in the region: an interesting example of a common problem with rehab. Out of the frying pan, into the fire!


About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.