In the 1990s, I owned a Geo Prizm for several years, running the odometer up over 197,000 miles. I eventually gave it away to a social-service agency because I didn’t think it would survive a cross-country move. (By then, the car was worth less than the tax deduction for donating it.) Otherwise, I’d have kept on driving it. I grew attached to that vehicle because, though it was falling apart, it refused to die.
Lately, my body reminds me of that Geo Prizm.
Like a lot of active people my age—let’s just say roughly halfway between five and 100—I’ve grown accustomed to having at least one low-level, chronic injury. They’re the kind that don’t prevent me from doing the outdoor activities I enjoy, but that vary from uncomfortable to occasionally sharply painful. Lately, I’m nursing three, and I do mean “nursing” in the sense that my physical maladies have thrived for quite some time.
I started physical therapy this week for a combination of ills in my right elbow—tendinosis and tendonitis, according to my physical therapist. (I prefer the simpler and more-elegant term “beer-drinker’s elbow,” which I think concisely defines the problem as one of those repetitive-motion injuries that defies easy remedy.) It has bothered me for a few years, not enough to stop me from working out, skate-skiing, or climbing, but giving me an almost constant painful reminder of its existence.
As explained to me, it’s not uncommon for active people of a certain age (see above) to suffer this type of chronic injury, which causes inflammation at a level that’s actually too low to instigate normal healing processes. Instead of healing, soft-tissue fibers (muscle, tendons, ligaments, and fascia) repeatedly tear and break down when you exercise, without the usual healing and rebuilding that should follow. The pain may never get awful, but also doesn’t go away.
To treat my elbow, a friend and sports-medicine doc prescribed a type of physical therapy called the ASTYM System. He’s confident it will finally resolve my problem where other measures—ice, stretching and other physical therapies, and long-term avoidance of activities that might aggravate it—have failed. Basically, a physical therapist runs hand-held, smooth-sided instruments repeatedly over the tissue, applying some pressure, to cause inflammation. The objective is to stimulate the body to break down the scarred tissue and allow new tissue to form. The treatment is uncomfortable and left my arm achy and slightly bruised, but that’s the point. After several twice-a-week visits to my P.T., I’m told, I’ll start seeing positive results. I’m optimistic and eager to see my elbow return to normal—whatever that is at my age (see above).
My middle-child injury—older than the elbow issue, younger than the problem I’ll describe below—concerns a high, deep, left hamstring pull that’s hounded me, at a low level, for several years. Running, long hikes, and carrying a heavy pack aggravate it; using a foam roller alleviates the symptoms. Every time I think I might be past this, it comes back like a bad relationship you just can’t terminate. Some weeks I spend more time with a foam roller than I do with my wife, and it’s not a good substitute.
The oldest of my bodily dysfunctions, dating back to around the time I saw Flock of Seagulls live (though I don’t really think there’s any connection between these events), is chronic lower-back pain. I’ve always managed it quite well through regular exercise and stretching. But it has bothered me more than usual this summer—possibly due to taking several backpacking trips with my young kids, carrying a 60-pound pack, sleeping numerous nights on the ground, and being outdoors so much, where it’s not as easy to stretch and do yoga as at home.
So my wife, who’s in medicine, made me an appointment to see a colleague of hers who’s a D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) and does back “adjustments.” She thinks it will help me. I’m willing to try it, though I’m slightly uncomfortable with the implication that I’m maladjusted.
Over the past several years, I’ve also muddled through shoulder impingements (both sides), nagging iliotibial (I.T.) band inflammation that lasted months, and probably other chronic injuries now forgotten. I’ve also been an equal-opportunity accident-waiting-to-happen for acute injuries, too: innumerable ankle sprains; several copious bleeders, including a nasty forehead gash from bashing my noggin against an overhanging ledge in the Grand Canyon; and one broken foot sustained while getting off a peak in the Tetons. (Thinking it was “just” a bad sprain, I walked five miles on it, nearly passing out from the pain in the last couple hours of that self-imposed torture.)
Another time, I landed in the E.R. after a road bike crash that cracked my helmet, bent my bike frame, and gave me a week of shoulder pain so severe I’d involuntarily cry out from the slightest movement of the joint. When the E.R. doc examined me, he assured me it wasn’t badly hurt and said, “You’re young, you’ll heal fast.” Then he looked at my chart and corrected himself. “Actually, you’re past 40,” he deadpanned. “You won’t heal fast at all.”
Staying active in middle age isn’t just hard. It’s sometimes insulting.
But I don’t complain about my various ailments. I’ve known plenty of people who’ve faced much more serious health issues, some life-threatening, some not that serious but more debilitating and discouraging than my problems, like hip issues in people that are too young to want to think about a hip replacement.
So I’ve grown used to living with wounds from recreational wars—often more than one wound at any given time. I’ve learned to take a long view on them and appreciate the need for rest. If someone asks how one particular injury is coming along, I’ll as often as not respond, quite honestly, “Well, it’s not the thing that hurts the most.”
I’ve probably long outlived my old Geo Prizm. Unfortunately, I can’t replace my own worn parts as easily as I did that car’s parts. I have to rehabilitate them. By my calculations, in car years, I’m about 269. And I’m planning on getting a couple more good car centuries in me before I’m towed to the junkyard.