My shoulder hurts

An injury narrative

I started this blog in 2008, a few months after I had surgery to reattach my labrum, followed by a second surgery to clean out scar tissue from the first. The labrum is the ring of cartilage that holds the head of the humerus in the shoulder socket. Mine popped off during the 7:30am class at Renzo Gracie Academy, when one of the bigger boys inadvertently dislocated my shoulder. It made a bad sound. I lay on the mat with my arm a dead thing. “Don’t put it back in,” the instructor counseled me, in his hilarious Brazilian accent. I nodded, adjusting my hips and turning my wrist in such a way that it popped back in. It felt like getting hit in the face with a hammer. For the next ten days or so, until I got surgery, my arm would fall out of the socket whenever I leaned forward.

The thing about an injury narrative is that it cannot possibly interest anyone else as much as it interests you, the injured. But you keep finding occasions to bring it up. When you’re in a sling or a cast or whatever, people ask. Later, when you have ostensibly recovered, it twinges when you reach into the back of the refrigerator or help your friend move. You tell people about it then, the way you tell people when you have a headache. “How’d you do it?” new acquaintances will foolishly ask. Then you launch into the narrative—a narrative you practiced by explaining it to the ER doctors, the osteopath, the surgeon, the physical therapist, et cetera. You experience the alienation of telling someone a story you have rehearsed too many times.

I didn’t get much physical therapy the first time I dislocated my shoulder, because I had done a course on my broken hand earlier that year. Aetna, my insurer at the time, insisted that I didn’t need physical therapy because I had gotten it already. It was an obviously stupid argument that they abandoned eleven months later, on the morning I was to meet them in New York state insurance court. By that time, it was too late. My body had adjusted itself around my bad shoulder, in weird ways that would cause problems for the next several years.

I dislocated again in 2011, while Ben al-Fowlkes and I were demonstrating the whizzer for his wife. After the usual moment of disbelieving panic, I lay face-down on their ping pong table and let it hang freely, allowing the muscles to relax to their regular positions and suck it back in. I used the same method when I dislocated during yoga in early 2015, lying on a cooler in the hallway as fitness moms looked on in horror.

By that point, Obamacare had relieved me of the $38,000 deductible on just my left shoulder that I had carried since the original injury, and I could afford to get physical therapy. Ana Soulia at Alpine Physical Therapy in Missoula spent five months patiently working through my physical and psychological bullshit, and I left with a stronger, more stable joint than I’d had for seven years. She even corrected the fallout from my torn ab. It was like living in a new body. I distinctly remember playing in a sand volleyball game where I jumped up and blocked a spike with my left hand, then landed and realized I was not writhing in pain with the weight of my dead arm pulling the muscles from the bone. I was fine. I felt cured.

Anyway, two weeks ago I dislocated in a fencing tournament in Spokane. It was a freak accident. I lunged—a motion I perform probably 300 times a week—and threw my trailing arm backwards. It was the left one, the bad one, and it just torqued out. Probably I hadn’t stretched enough after the drive, and I was fatigued from yoga the previous day. I couldn’t get it back in, likely because Ana had done such good work rebuilding the muscles around it. My coach, who rules, drove me to the ER, and what with normal waiting and x-rays and necessary forms, it was out for about two hours. The muscles start spasming after around 20 minutes. I pulled everything: tricep, deltoids, pec minor, tares major, subclav, subscap—all the usual suspects. It feels like I tore my bicep, but a lot of injuries feel worse than they are.

Probably everything feels worse than it is. I am returning to Ana in a couple of hours, and she will give me a better sense of what’s wrong. If she sees that I have undone four months of her skilled labor, she won’t say anything. I will tell her what happened, the same litany I repeated to the ER nurse, the attending physician whom I last saw winding up a sheet as I slipped into unconsciousness, my teammate who drove me home, my patient girlfriend. I will add another chapter to my injury narrative. I can go over it in my head during private moments, when I am stretching an elastic band or externally rotating with a rolled-up towel under my arm. This is what happened to me. This is why I am this way now. This is my body, I will think. There are many like it, but this one is mine. And no one will hear it. No one will need to.

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  1. Everyone who cares about you will hear and listen to this, and moreover… As with many things, you tell it well. Good luck bud. Get well.

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