By: Sheila Borgman
The rollerblades were not to blame. It’s true they played a key role in my injury, but it was hardly their fault. They’d been buried in our garage for nearly three decades.
In October of 2018, I was on vacation in Borrego Springs, California, where my husband, John, and I had lived for a short time in our 20s. Back then, one of our favorite things to do was strap on our rollerblades at night and fly down the middle of long desert roads lit by the moon, so when we were packing for our return visit we dug out our blades.
Even though I was wobblier and more cautious than I once was, being back on rollerblades under a full moon was glorious, especially since we had our daughter Jessie (then 18) in tow. On our way back to our rental house we realized we had gone down the wrong street, and as I slowed to a near-stop to turn around, I felt a snap in the back of my left thigh and went down in a clattering heap.
“Oh, Jessie,” I said. “I think I did something really bad to my leg.”
The really bad thing
The really bad thing turned out to be a proximal hamstring rupture, in which my hamstring tore 80 percent off my ischial tuberosity (also known as the “sit bone”). The emergency room doc, after taking an X-ray which showed no break, assured me it was just a bad strain. After returning home I limped around for a week before referring myself to a physical therapist, who misdiagnosed my pain as ischial bursitis.
“This type of bursitis is common in some sports,” the physical therapist said during our first session. “Are you an athlete?”
“I’m active, but I’m definitely not an athlete,” I told her.
She treated me with a Graston tool, a long metal rod used to break up scar tissue. As she dragged it repeatedly over the incredibly sore spot, we didn’t know that the treatment was likely making things worse for the tiny strip of hamstring that was still clinging desperately to my hip bone. It hurt so much it took my breath away, and after six weeks of torture with no improvement, I referred myself to an orthopedist. He ordered an MRI which showed the tear.
“Are you an athlete?” he asked after he gave me the diagnosis.
“I’m active, but I’d hardly call myself an athlete.”
“Interesting,” he said. “This isn’t a common tear. Usually, it happens in athletes who compete in sports where they fall with their legs straight out in front of them, like surfing or water skiing.”
When I did additional research on the injury, I learned that bull riding, rugby, and football are other sports in which proximal hamstring tears can occur. Since I’d never participated in any of these activities, the cause of my injury was chalked up to something odd that happened for no apparent reason.
Because only 8 percent to 12 percent of hamstring injuries are proximal tears, there is little data on their treatment and outcome, but what I was able to find in the medical literature stressed the importance of immediate repair. My time from tear to repair was more than three months.
My first surgery, in which my hamstring was screwed back into my hip, was in January of 2019. While I was waiting to be wheeled into surgery, a nurse (not the one assigned to me) popped her head into my pre-op room and said she’d never heard of my kind of injury. “Are you an athlete?” she asked.
The second surgery, in July of 2019, was to figure out why I still couldn’t sit without pain. The surgery landed me back on crutches with another six months of physical therapy, but provided no benefit.
Being out of alignment for all of 2019 and 2020 created problems with what had once been my “good side.” A disc in my back became herniated and another slipped out of place, and at some point, I tore the meniscus in my knee. Between my hip, back, and knee, at least one body part hurts all the time; sometimes they all hurt at once.
Chronic pain is defined as persistent or recurrent pain that doesn’t resolve within three months. People with chronic pain are at risk of depression, anxiety, falls, sleep disorders, substance abuse, and lifelong disability.
Having spent a lot of time researching chronic pain in my job as a medical writer, I was already well aware of its complications. What I wasn’t prepared for is how lonely it is to be in constant pain. I have an amazing support network of family and friends who do everything they can to keep my spirits up, and John is endlessly—sometimes annoyingly—optimistic that I will get my mobility back. But they’ll never know what it feels like, and I worry they think I’m making it up.
“You believe me, right?” I often ask John.
“Of course,” he says. But what’s happening to me is unknowable, even to the person who knows me best.
My world has become very small since chronic pain became my reality. I’m 53 and feel 83. My mom, with two bad knees and an arthritic hip, sometimes needs to slow down for me when we walk. I can no longer bike, do yoga, or ride in the car for more than 20 minutes without pillows and pain meds. I can’t sit in normal chairs and do all my work at a stand-up desk. I’ll never take my mobility for granted again.
The next time someone asks if I’m an athlete, I’m going to say yes. Like other chronic pain warriors with freezers full of ice packs, shelves full of anti-inflammatories, and folders full of medical records, I’m running a marathon whose finish line seems always out of reach.
So I’ll just keep running.
About Sheila Borgman
Sheila Borgman is a senior editor for an epidemiology database. During her 25-year career as a medical writer, she’s written extensively about chronic pain from a clinical perspective, but in the past two years she’s gained personal insight into what it means to be a chronic pain warrior. It’s been a long (and ongoing) journey toward regaining her mobility, but she remains hopeful.