Athlete’s Are Not All Just Wheels and Chassis: Mastering the Ability to Heal

Injury is part of an athlete’s life; it can be a minor inconvenience, an ongoing niggle or, sometimes, a devastating blow. Injuries can be frustrating, a test of patience; athletes often do not cope very well with a period of enforced inactivity. An injury which prevents you from participating in your chosen sport for several months can even lead to depression.

So, how you respond to injury, especially serious or long term injury, is, or should be, part of what it means to be an athlete – whether professional, amateur or weekend. Consider for a moment how you might respond if someone you are close to starts to complain about your relationship with them. If you are wise you will listen to what they have to say and consider it carefully, even if your first instinct is that they are wrong. You may not agree with what they are saying, but you can’t afford to ignore them – something is up. Ignoring them, or “papering over the cracks”, is the worst thing you can do.

It’s the same thing with your relationship with your body – it is not a coincidence that the word ‘complaint’ can mean either a spoken objection or a medical problem. If you sustain an injury, it means your body is complaining and, especially if the injury is long term or recurrent, or if it is the latest in a series of apparently unrelated injuries (commonly but erroneously considered to be ‘bad luck’) you need to stop and listen. As an athlete, in fact, you need to learn to be sensitive to your body and what it is telling you, not just when you have an injury, but before you get that injury. We must learn how to know and trust our body’s healing process.

We  can take this healing process for granted, but if you stop to think about it, we have a really rather incredible ability to repair ourselves. It might be instructive to compare yourself with your car, if you have one. (An interesting question to ask may be how much do you spend on keeping your car working, versus how much you spend on keeping yourself working.)  If your car is damaged, you can’t just leave it in the garage for a few days and expect it to be mended. Sometimes it might need a bit of help from a clinician, but your body can often heal itself pretty well; if it couldn’t, our species would not have survived, medicine of any kind being a rather late human invention. What a good clinician does is to support the natural healing process where it needs it. The father of the poet W. H Auden, a doctor and professor of public health, put it well: “healing… is the intuitive art of wooing nature.”

From this point of view, the easy availability of some painkillers is a mixed blessing. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen actually slow down the healing process. Inflammation is painful, but it is also part of nature’s way of starting that process. (Of course the pain also serves nature’s purpose – it tells us we may need to stop doing what we are doing and recover, and tells us a lot about what the problem is and where it is.) This is not to say that you need to avoid all painkillers or other forms of analgesia (especially the ones without so many side effects!), but that getting into the habit of unthinkingly blocking out pain is like getting into the habit of not listening to your friends when they say things you don’t want to hear.

Another way in which we are different from cars is that we are so much more complex; we are an organism, not a machine. Our body is a miraculous network of inter-relationships, and our idea of how it works is usually hopelessly simplistic. So if we have a recurrent or chronic injury in a particular area, say the Achilles tendon, we need to realise that our Achilles is not something which exists in isolation from the rest of us. The healing process, for instance, relies on the appropriate nutrients being transported effectively around the body so that damaged tissues at the extremities can start to heal. If our circulatory system is not tip-top (one clue might be a propensity to cold feet and/or cold hands) then our tendon injury will not heal as fast as it would otherwise. Obviously, you can make the same kind of case for other organ systems; a weakness in one area has effects on everything. Our digestive system needs to be good at absorbing nutrients; our kidneys need to be good at expelling waste products; our lungs need to be good at getting oxygen in, and so on. In fact a problem with any of the organ systems will inevitably have an impact on our injury – whether we get it in the first place, how quickly it heals, whether it recurs. Recurring or chronic injury is probably telling us that there is a weakness somewhere, and not just in the site of the injury.

Another difference between you and your car is that you have a mind, a soul, consciousness, or whatever you want to call it. Responding to injury is not just a matter for purely physical processes in your body. In fact one might doubt whether there are such things as purely physical processes in human beings, in that emotional and cognitive aspects of our being have such significant impacts on healing. If you doubt this, you only have to consider the placebo effect. Fifty years ago many medical professionals might have doubted that such a thing existed, but nowadays it is such a recognised medical fact that all new treatments are compared against placebos to measure how effective they are. In fact, the idea that mind and body are separate entities is an idea which is a few hundred years out of date. Mind effects body, body effects mind. Mind and body are perhaps better thought of as two aspects of the same reality, with a very blurred boundary between the two.

What this means for an athlete is, of course, that mental factors affect not only athletic performance, but recovery from injury. As already mentioned, long term injuries can be mentally challenging, so that in the treatment and management of such injuries we need to include ways of supporting ourselves mentally and emotionally.

What this all means is that as athletes we need an holistic approach to our body and its injuries, not a mechanistic one. We need to develop our understanding of and sensitivity to our body, heed the messages it gives us, and promote health, healing and performance in a way which does not seek to over-ride nature, but work with it.

Proper acupuncture draws upon a substantial and sophisticated understanding of human health, developed over millennia, called Traditional Chinese Medicine. An acupuncturist who uses the technique within this traditional context, (rather than as an adjunctive technique tacked on to modern medicine after a couple of weekends training – check this link for more on this distinction), can help an athlete’s body-mind regain the balance that once existed before the injury began. They can therefore help facilitate improved athletic performance both physically and mentally.

In contrast to more modern mechanical approaches, the outcome of the treatment process is thus not just the absence of injury but also more energy, improved mental state, better sleep and, ultimately, improved performance. These are the outcomes we love to watch with our athlete patients at The Sean Barkes Clinic.

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