The Injured Worker and Athlete
If you’ve been injured on the job or in a sport and you feel stuck, not making progress towards getting back into your life, I’m going to share with you a distinction that I’ve made over the past 19 years as a doctor and competitive athlete. This distinction is the difference between those who break out of that stuck cycle of chronic pain, and everyone else.
In my nearly 19 years of being in clinical practice, I have seen distinctions in both the injured athlete and injured worker. Early on when I began my studies in Chinese medicine, I also began to train and compete in full contact fighting at national, international, and world levels. This gave me a firsthand experience of being on both sides of the medical system at the same time.
Early in my career I began treating not only athletes but also injured workers. Over a short period of time I began to see a crossover between the injured athlete and the injured worker. I then figured out that an injured worker is not much different than an injured athlete. And from that point on, there was a consistency in how I treated both. In seeing both as the same, my ability to help both types of patients dramatically improved.
So why is this important to you? Well, because if you want to make a breakthrough, you need to model people that have achieved what you want. If you’ve been injured on the job, in a sport, or for just about any reason, pay close attention because it only takes one insight to make a breakthrough in your own health.
The first distinction that I made was in the area of performance. That is, the ability to generate force and power while maintaining body alignment. In other words, it’s the ability to stand and move with maximum efficiency while minimizing the probability of injury. For a competitive fighter like myself, that translates into the ability to throw and strike your opponent with devastating force. For the non-athlete and especially the worker, it translates into the ability to lift, push, pull, and carry with more strength and ease. Both working in your office and in a competitive athletic arena require functional strength. That is, the ability to maintain posture and movement against demands.
So the question becomes, “How functionally strong are you?” Not how many curls can you do or how long can you run on the treadmill. A better question to ask yourself is, “How tired do my muscles get from just sitting, standing, or filing papers?” or “How long can I walk before I must sit down?” or “Do I get pain or muscle tension if I’m leaning over to pick something up, putting on my shoes, or after just washing dishes for 5-10 minutes?” That’s functional strength and endurance!
The second correlate is a focus on minimizing yourself from getting re-injured or aggravating the injured site. Now, this is not solely about ergonomics, but more importantly it’s about an understanding of the underlying cause. This really comes down to how conditioned or functionally strong you are prior to the injury. With that said, if you do the wrong thing – that is, try to strengthen the injured area at the wrong time and when the condition is still inflamed – you’re only going to aggravate it! So timing is everything. For example, utilizing a modality such as biomedical acupuncture to reduce the pain and inflammation may be a great first step. A second step would then be to strengthen the area with physical therapy. Sometimes using both at the same time is the best strategy, as long as the condition is not flared up.
A third distinction occurs when an athlete or worker becomes injured and fear develops which causes most to stop moving. When you slow down or worse, stop moving, the body becomes de-conditioned. It gets weaker, predisposing you to higher probability of injury. I learned my lesson the hard way because when you’re fighting full contact, you’re constantly getting injured. If I stopped moving each time I was injured, I would never move! I’d be a statue!
One successful strategy I’ve used that allowed me to continue to train and compete is what my teacher called the “Front burner, back burner” concept. For example, if I injured my right hand, I would use my left. If I injured my left foot then I would kick with my right. Sometimes, multiple parts were injured and I simply felt like I was hit by a truck. Have you ever felt like that? In those cases, what I did was shift my workouts entirely to slow-moving restorative exercises like tai chi, chi kung, and other core functional exercises until I healed. When we’re treating injured workers and athletes and they’re in that really inflamed state where they can’t do much of anything, this is where we teach them these restorative exercises as well. The key is simple: Keep moving your body!
In order to maintain muscle strength, minimize weakness, and maximize healing, the body needs to move. Now, the ritual of movement is not only for the purpose to maintain a strong physical body, but more importantly a strong psychological and emotional state. What I commonly see with patients who aren’t moving their body due to the fear of worsening an injury is the increased probability of depression and anxiety. When you keep the body in motion, you feel emotionally better!
That’s why when working with injured workers or athletes, getting back into your job or sport as fast as possible, is high priority! Why is it so urgent? Because the longer you’re out of your job or sport, the more you become weaker physically, and more importantly psychologically. When you fall out of the ritual of work and sport, you increase the probability of falling into the habit of being lazy and emotionally unstable.
So, let me give you a trait that high-performing injured athletes and workers have, that gets them right back into their game – a sense of urgency! What does a sense of urgency look like? Imagine a clock ticking each day you are out of work or your sport. That clock of urgency is a reminder for you to keep moving your body and maintain a positive attitude so you don’t fall into the trap of bad habits. A sense of urgency on the job means seeing yourself as an athlete needing to get back into competition by a specific date or otherwise you’ll get cut from the team, or in reality from your job. If you’re an athlete, know that each day you’re not training, you’re losing your edge.
We’re all creatures of habit. If you’ve made exercise a daily habit, you know it’s something that you no longer have to think about. It’s like brushing your teeth. You don’t put brushing your teeth on your to-do list. Why? Because it’s part of your daily ritual. I don’t say, “You know, I’ve brushed my teeth 3 weeks in a row. I’m going to take a couple days off. Or I’m going to switch it up to 3 days on 1 day off.” You don’t to that! Why? Because it’s a habit.
So I encourage you to make exercise – or movement – a daily part of your life, so that if and when you have an injury you know to move. Lastly, make exercise a daily habit. Why? Because life will give you days off. What happens if you go on vacation, the kids get sick, or you’re not feeling well and you don’t work out? Then you let a little too many days go by? Do you notice that it is more and more difficult to get back into your routine?
The oldest book of Chinese medicine called the Yellow Emperors Classics – which is over 3,000 years old – stated that one of the most important factors of long-term health above everything else is to maintain healthy rituals– otherwise known as habits of health.
When you have a strong enough reason, you will figure out how to do get to your outcome. The most powerful reason I’ve seen motivate athletes and workers back into their sport or job has by far more to do with one’s life outside of work or sport. What we’re really talking about here is your entire life and your ability to live fully! So begin to ask yourself, “How many why’s or reasons can I find to fuel my drive? In addition to getting back into my sport or job, what else will I get to do and experience by becoming healthier?” The more emotionally charged reasons that you add to your outcome, the more fuel and power you’ll have. Recent research from the Institute for Work & Health reinforces this, with evidence that patients who are optimistic about recovery following an injury will actually recover and return to work faster than patients who are less optimistic!
Our goal here at the Center is to keep planting the right seeds in those injured on the job, in a sport, and in life. So hopefully, I’ve provided you some seeds of insight that will give you a strong enough WHY to take your life back. Give yourself the gift of health by integrating science-based natural medical modalities into your health care today.
If you like to find out more about how we can assist you with your specific health concerns and how we can best integrate the use of medical modalities such as biomedical acupuncture, contact our office at (619) 287-4005 to schedule a free consultation where we can answer any questions you have to find out if and how we can help you with your healthcare needs.