The Invisible Injury

I’m sitting on the couch and I should be at training.

Just over 3 months ago I had a snowboarding accident on a work trip. I was navigating my way around a fallen snow boarder when they tried to get up, slipped and moved straight into my new path. I was on the edge of the run, had nowhere to go and collected their board with my shin. I flew over them head first, and somehow ended up facing up the hill in the opposite direction, with the nose of my board peeled up and unrideable. I had to hike back to the village, and when I got there I realized my shin was cut fairly badly. I needed 4 stitches and was still upset about my damaged snowboard.

At 2am the next morning I woke up, sweating and nauseous. At 6am I got up, exhausted and feeling terrible. I dressed in my gear and headed up the mountain with the intention to rent a board and ride – after all, I was on a ski trip. By 9 am I was in the bathroom near the ski lifts, vomiting and unable to keep my breakfast down. This continued until 4pm that day, as I waited for my students and fellow teachers to return from their day skiing the slopes. After over 12 hours of nausea and vomiting I returned to the medical centre to ask for a sick back for the bus ride back to our accommodation. They politely detained me, and quickly concluded that I had suffered a concussion. There went the rest of my ski trip.

My understanding of concussion was this: they happened to athletes all the time. Rugby players got them, then were on the field the very next game. No big deal. Well, was I wrong about that. I was fine for about a week, which was as long as it took to finish the work trip (sans snowboarding) and then return to karate. The first time I elbowed a pad it felt like my brain was going to explode. My head ached for days. Then the headaches continued intermittently, until eventually they just never went away. I would get them for days at a time, ranging from background discomfort, to blazing pain that made it so hard to work, study, focus and made training impossible.

I went to the doctor, who ordered a CT, but it came back clear. Eventually I was told that I had Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS), and that it could last a week or a year. Who could tell which it would be? The advice I received was to ‘Take some Panadol’ and rest. Right. 7 weeks after the injury I had an episode of slurred speech and severe tiredness, which was a little bit scary. It’s a frightening thing not to have control of your own body. They did an MRI, but again, everything came back clear.

I was stuck in limbo, with doctors who couldn’t find anything wrong with me, but a body that simply refused to cope with the demands I had always put on it. Work was difficult, and painful. Try teaching over a hundred students every day with an omnipresent raging headache! Studying my diploma of Japanese was impossible. The words always slipped away from me; I couldn’t focus; I simply wasn’t able to grasp any new information. But the inability to train was the worst.

I train twice a week at karate and have always enjoyed adding extra sessions throughout the week, be it a run, a boxing class or some pad work with my fellow karateka. But after my concussion, I couldn’t do anything. Any activity that raised my heart rate or blood pressure left me with a pounding headache. I resorted to coming to training to take photos or footage of the class, or walk around to help correct and instruct. I’m not sure what was more painful – the headache, or the disappointment in myself.

Eventually – after a long period of doing NOTHING – the headaches eased, though they still appear fairly frequently. On Tuesday night I was pushed into a wall at training and wasn’t in a position to brace myself. The impact (though light) jarred my head, and two days later I’m sitting on the couch trying to get rid of the persistent ache instead of being at training.

Having an invisible injury is really difficult. When you have a broken arm or leg, people can see it. They know why you’re not training. They understand. But when you’re dealing with a tangible injury, particularly a limb, you can also learn to train around it. You have a broken hand? Well, don’t throw that punch. A sore knee? Ok, you can do everything from a stationery position tonight. There are ways to manage your injury, and people understand the limitations that you have. When they can’t see wyour injury, it’s hard to understand what the problem is.

I’ve had to try a lot of different things to manage my lifestyle while I can’t train. Obviously, I can’t eat as much as I normally do, as my energy expenditure simply isn’t the same. Living with a 90kg athlete who trains incredibly hard and has a penchant for chocolate biscuits makes resisting temptation very difficult, but it is a good exercise in will power. I’ve adjusted my workouts, gradually increasing the amount of cardio I can do, but avoiding any exercises with impact at all costs. You have to be so patient. I had been almost a week without a headache when I decided I was fit to do a 30-minute pad session. That night I was fine, but by the next morning I knew that I had just set myself back. After a 3-day headache, I learned my lesson. Patience.

Today I watched a great video about concussion. It used the hastag #NEWTOUGH, and I loved it. #NEWTOUGH is the idea that in order to recover from concussion we need to move beyond our common understanding of toughness (work through it, you’ll be fine, it’s just pain) and be strong enough to actually acknowledge the pain of injury, and how hard it is to step back and say that you’re not ok. Be tough enough to be patient, wait, and allow your body to repair itself. And you know what? It is tough.

I see my friends at karate train and sweat and share the bond that adversity brings. My best friend is doing amazing things in the military, and every day I am so proud of how strong and fit she is, and the new heights she is reaching. My workmates visit the gym in the morning and train before the work day starts. And here I am. Resting.

I try and ease the guilt with goal setting. In nine weeks, our karate group will hold our end of year breakup: 30 rounds of sparring in the park. I’d like to be able to participate in our end of year rite of passage, though I know when the day comes there will need to be an honest evaluation of my recovery and my ability to join in. However, it gives me motivation to keep eating well, rest when I need it and train when I can. It’s also a nice reminder not to eat the chocolate biscuits that the cookie monster has in our fridge.

So for now, I’m sitting on the couch…and it’s exactly where I need to be.

3 thoughts on “The Invisible Injury

  1. Your head might be letting you down at the moment Tam, but at least it’s screwed on straight. Wishing you well on your recovery and backing you to achieve that goal!

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    1. Thanks Kath! I’m looking forward to the recovery!

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  2. Your stronger than you know Tam and your body is giving you the signs to rest, you will bounce back once it’s ready, but for now, have that rest (and that chic biccy 😘)

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