Up until this year I’ve been lucky enough never to have broken a single bone in my body. I probably haven’t been trying hard enough which suits me fine, if you’re injured you can’t ride for a start. But this year, as most of you know I collided heavily with a tree and the tree won quite easily, leaving me with a broken collarbone.
What can you expect if you’re unlucky enough to experience the same? Here’s a list of the main points.
- Breaking a bone hurts, a lot. In my limited experience, not as bad as suffering for an entire weekend with a raging tooth abcess but close. The thing is, although it’s the sort of pain that makes you want to be very good and sit still if it would just stop hurting, when you do sit still it does stop hurting. Until you move of course. But for me, tooth pain is worse because it won’t stop, ever.
- Like tooth pain, when it stops hurting it’s difficult to remember how bad it was, which is probably a good thing. Until you move.
- The first week or so is the worst if you are following the traditional ‘strap it up and wait for nature to mend it’ course. The bone starts making new stuff pretty quickly but after a couple of days the sensation of the two ends sticking and then pulling apart as you move still makes me feel nauseous if I think about it.
- There is a wide range of estimates of how long it takes to heal. I’ve heard of people being back at work the next day (frankly that’s in the borderline insane category) to up to eight or ten weeks. For me, I had five and a half weeks in a sling followed by another couple of weeks to get mobility back enough to drive a car. And it was a simple (but clean) break. My advice is listen to your body first, then doctors. There are no shortcuts.
- Painkillers are a boon and a curse. Put it this way, codeine based painkillers are known for effective pain relief, followed by ummm, constipation. Calculate your dosage based on need.
- Most medical advice is offered on a ‘don’t do anything unless necessary (or we’re getting paid for it)’ basis. This gives rise to consultants suggesting pinning the bone whereas NHS doctors say ‘it’ll be fine, just wait’. If you think pinning is worthwhile, insist early on or it’s not worth it as the bone is healing straight away. For me, pinning would have saved time but not necessarily been the best option as it was a simple break and was always going to heal on its own. Pinning involves cutting muscles and invasive surgery, the wait and see approach is longer but does work. I’ve been lucky enough to get a full range of movement back albeit with the odd shoulder click.
- The medical system is obscure. Not because people don’t want to help (all the medical staff I met were great), but because they see this stuff so often they forget it’s a massive deal for you. My most upsetting moments were from being treated as a statistic or a ‘problem’ rather than a patient. Going private prevents this but even so, make a point of asking questions and pushing for answers.
- If you break your collarbone and have it strapped for any period of time (the most common treatment), expect the Armpit of Doom. It will happen. A combination of hot material from the sling itself, an immobile shoulder and a difficulty in washing can only lead to one result. It’s unpleasant, especially in high summer and has lead me to boggle at the thought of where all that dead skin normally goes. That’s enough for me to say but do your best to stay clean.
- The value of a good physiotherapist cannot be over estimated. I’ve been to a few over the years but the one that worked on me after I was out of the sling was the best I’ve had. After that length of time immobile you lose strength dramatically but also flexibility to the point where my elbow wouldn’t straighten and I couldn’t get my arm above my head or behind my back. The physio sorted all that and now I’m fine. And armpit massages (cf. the Armpit of Doom) are odd, painful and embarrassing in equal measure.
- Fitness. If you are injured, you will lose fitness. There’s nothing you can do about this but don’t be tempted to ‘get back on the horse’ too soon. It may be tempting but the consequences of another injury are both more time off the bike and potentially far worse damage to deal with long term. Wait until the physio says it’s OK to start training and do exactly what they say. When you do get back to riding, the first ride or so will be fine, after which the extended layoff will really sap your strength. Remember you’re still healing from a big injury. For me, I’ve ended up with a couple of colds and general tiredness for quite a while now and pushing harder doesn’t help. As I’ve said, listen to your body and play the long game.
- Be prepared for depression. Not necessarily the ‘whole world’s against me’ kind (although it might be) but longer term flatness and lack of enthusiasm. For me, not riding the whole summer, missing out on outdoor air and sunshine plus general tiredness and the knowledge that your mates are still riding has taken it’s toll, leaving me ill, unfit and fed up. Again, play the long game, beating it requires keeping a clear idea in your head of where you want to be and not being distracted by relatively small hurdles that get in the way. Don’t allow yourself to do stuff you don’t want but don’t let other easy excuses get in your way. Things like poor weather, wife has got used to you being around on Sundays, bike’s not quite right excuses don’t wash. Just do it.
- MTB Mojo—this is the hardest part of your recovery. Personally I’m not there yet. There are times when you start riding again that you find yourself just plain scared of hurting yourself again. Once you know what it involves you don’t want to experience it again. Besides, the definition of an idiot is someone who doesn’t learn from past mistakes. This is a tough one, you can’t just pick up where you left off but of course you know deep down that you can do it because you’ve done it before. For me, returning to riding in the autumn when everything is/was covered in slippery leaves and mud made it worse and there have been times when I’ve just wanted take up Tiddlywinks instead. You can’t force things and in my case I can’t shake the thought that my injury was stupendously close to a full on high–speed head–first disaster, in which case I might not be worrying about riding again at all. I’ve been really lucky and in those circumstances it’s best not to tweak the nose of danger again too soon. I know it will return but I’ll let it come to me rather than going looking for it.
So there’s my thoughts. Basically, the injury hurts and the sensation of muscles shortening, withering and cramping up through inactivity can be extremely uncomfortable, but your body will heal.
You can have it pinned or wait for nature and there’s pros and cons with either option which depending on the opinion and employer of who you’re talking to you won’t get. But basically people do want to help, so keep pushing for answers.
Watch out for the Armpit of Doom and accept that it takes time to recover from a big break. I never realised how much blood there is in bones for example which leads to bruising and swelling which can take weeks to dissipate.
Finally, let mountain biking come to you once you’ve recovered, don’t try and prove a point to yourself (or worse, others) but don’t use feeble excuses to stay away either.
For me, after six months, I think I’m starting to enjoy it again…