I’ve got a secret. It’s time to open up and tell the truth.
For the past many months, I’ve been dealing with a serious shoulder injury. Without falling or doing anything that I can remember to hurt it, I ended up with a shoulder trifecta: frozen shoulder, small rotator cuff tear, and arthritis.
Why was I hiding this? Because I’m a professional violist and a personal trainer. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that in a very competitive field, perception matters. Even though I was able to play everything I was hired to play (I just didn’t feel great doing it), I was afraid that if people knew I had shoulder pain, they would choose not to hire me. I learned that when I was in cancer treatment. No matter how much I told people I was working, and only accepted work I was confident I could manage, some people stopped hiring me. I know there was nothing mean-spirited about this, most just had my well-being in mind, but still, I lost work. (There were others who stuck with me, in spite of my bald head, and I am eternally grateful to them!!!) So I’ve learned that perceived weakness can be detrimental to my bank account. And on the fitness trainer side, who really wants a trainer who can’t demonstrate exercises. Besides, I’m not the type of trainer to just tell people what to do and stand by, I do the exercises right alongside.
It started bothering me last winter. I kept working to stretch and keep it moving. I got a lot of massage and acupuncture, worked with an Alexander Technique teacher. Those things kept me functional, but not improving. Finally after several months, I decided it was time to see the doctor since it was clearly not something I could fix myself. Plus, since I was having pain in my collar bone and shoulder on the side I had breast cancer, I started to worry that it could be cancer metastasizing the bones.
Lots of scans and blood work led to an all-clear on the cancer, just routine shoulder issues. Even though it was severely impacting my life, frozen shoulder was a fixable thing. I’m sure my orthopedist has never had someone so happy to be told they have a frozen shoulder!
This is why I haven’t been as active as normal. No climbing. No ultramarathons. In fact, I’ve had difficulty running more than a few miles at a time because running irritates my shoulder.
But I haven’t been doing nothing. I’ve been working very hard on my shoulder. It’s getting a whole lot better. I’ve got good range of motion again, and now am working on rebuilding strength.
Frozen shoulder is a pretty common problem after breast cancer surgery/treatments. I didn’t have that trouble after my mastectomy, but because of my surgery, I knew early on some of the stretches and exercises to do. I started out doing a lot of wall climbs: standing next to a wall and slowing crawling my hand up the wall. It seems like such an easy thing to do, but can be such a challenge. At the beginning, I couldn’t get my hand much above eye level. But I kept working it, every day. The other thing was hanging arm pendulum and circles. Bend over from waist, lean on a chair or table for balance. Let arm hang straight down from shoulder. Gently swing it up and back, like a pendulum. I would do this many times a day, up and back, also side to side. Then gently swing arm in small circles. This helps to get a little movement into the shoulder joint in a non-stressful way.
But that wasn’t enough. When I got back from playing opera in Saratoga, I started physical therapy. I went for my assessment and when the PT heard that I did some work at a fitness trainer with cancer survivors, she said, “Oh, then you probably don’t need us at all, you know most of this.” I laughed and said, “Yes, but you know more.” Of course I know how to work range of motion, then build up gradually, beginning with no weight. But I also know the value of working with someone who knows more than I do, and someone who can check my progress.
For the last couple of months, I’ve been working on improving my range of motion through gentle movements. Slowly, once I had better range of motion, I started building strength, beginning with movements with no weight. Over weeks, I increased the number of repetitions of all the exercises. A few weeks ago, I started adding very light weights. When I would add weight to an exercise, I would drop the repetitions down, and gradually increase again.
I think tomorrow will probably be my last day for PT – I graduate. It’s still a long process to build my strength back to normal, but I am functional. And physical therapists – good ones – are totally my heroes!
Whether the result of surgery, illness, or injury, recovery from a serious issue is not fun. It’s difficult and frustrating. The exercises are hard and can be painful, even as they seem so stupidly easy. It’s easy to get frustrated…”I can’t believe I’m struggling to raise my arm to shoulder height, I used to climb cliffs!!” And there are days that it just doesn’t feel good. It’s so tempting to say, “it hurts, I don’t want to do this.” But I knew that was the only way to get better, that the short-term discomfort was the path to long-term functioning. And that was the only way I was getting back to a normal functional life.
Step by teeny, tiny step. It’s not perfect, but it’s the only way forward.
And again, hurray for physical therapists!