Friday, March 8, 2013

I Got the Elbow Blues

(Photo:  Elbows.)

Just a week ago last Thursday, I was feeling like I'd settled into a reasonably good place from which to start the season.

There were a bunch of new problems on the "Highball Wall" at Brooklyn Boulders. I love seeing the new problems. I know we are just talking about the gym, and that it isn't a big deal. But I always get a little bit excited when I see a wall full of new routes. Judging from the ridiculous crowds that always surround the new problems, I'm not the only one who feels this way. True to past trends, the newly set wall was utterly mobbed last Thursday.

I jumped in, despite the crowds.

After speeding through many of the easier climbs I was feeling pretty good. I made quick work of a couple of the V5's and then with a little bit of concentrated effort I sent a V6. This was by no means a great accomplishment. Anyone can do it. But for me it was not a trivial thing. All winter long I've been trying to get myself into a new mindset in which I think of every V5 as a climb I will send (as opposed to a project for some other day) and every V6 as a climb I can do with some work (as opposed to a climb reserved for someone better than me).

As I finished the V6 and dropped to the floor I heard an onlooker say "that was awesome." It took a second for it to sink in that this person was talking about me! I wasn't accustomed to hearing such exclamations about me. And it's true, it was a little bit awesome. I'd never scoped out a V6 and put it all together so quickly before. A year or two ago I might have been that same onlooker, thinking the same thing, in effect saying "that looks so hard, it is surely out of my league."

But now with the new mindset I was approaching just about any climb as if I might be able to do it.

And maybe this approach was working.

Or maybe this was just an easy V6.

Afterwards I sat down and watched a very strong climber tackle a V9+. This problem involved a series of long reaches between awful slopers. He'd been working the route for a while and shortly after my victory on the V6 he finally sent the V9+. He was ecstatic about it, and with good reason. The climb looked terribly terribly hard, much too difficult for even my new hard-charging persona to consider attempting.

I listened as he talked to another super-strong climber.

"I must have been here for six hours yesterday," he said. "My tendons feel like they could explode at any moment."

The other climber gave him a concerned look. "Do you use ice?" he asked. "I ice my arms after every hard session."

I wondered if this made sense. I'd read conflicting advice about using ice. In any event I empathized with these super-climbers with the sore tendons, because I was growing more than a little bit worried about my own.

Over the last few months I'd gradually noticed that my elbows seemed to be sore a lot. There would be some pain on the inside (medial) edge of both elbows when I warmed up, and then the soreness would go away while I climbed, only to return later at random times. Sometimes the elbows would throb while I lay in bed at night, or while I sat at my desk at work. It was more of an occasional annoyance than an impediment to climbing. I was concerned, but not enough to do much of anything about it.

Until recently, that is. As the outdoor climbing season approached and the problem seemed to be getting worse, I looked to the Internet for answers. I soon found a nice piece by Dr. Julian Saunders, the sports doctor who writes for Rock & Ice Magazine. In the article he describes my recent symptoms pretty much exactly and says they suggest a condition called tendonosis, a degeneration of the tendon cell at the elbow.

Dr. Saunders prescribes some exercises with a barbell to strengthen the tendons. It seemed like a reasonable approach to me so I ordered a set of barbells. I hoped that if I followed Dr. Saunders' program the problem would gradually disappear over time. The best part of the doctor's advice, from my perspective, was that he said nothing at all about taking a break from climbing. The last thing I wanted to do was to stop climbing. The season was just about to begin.  I was already planning to go to the Gunks with Gail on March 10, when it was supposed to be 50 degrees in New Paltz.

While I was at it I decided to order a massage tool called The Stick.  I came across a testimonial to its effectiveness for sore elbows and decided it might also help.

But I didn't get a chance to start either of these new therapies.  Before my packages arrived I realized I had a new, more severe elbow problem.

I went back to Brooklyn Boulders on Sunday, just a few days after my little V6 triumph. As I warmed up I gradually realized my right elbow was sore in a new way. I really felt it when I pulled on holds and the pain wasn't going away as I warmed up. There was something wrong. Eventually I abandoned the session and went home.

Where did this new injury come from? I have no idea.

Once I was aware of the pain, I noticed I was feeling it all the time. It hurt to yank open the refrigerator, or to squeeze a water bottle. I detected noticeable swelling on my arm near the elbow right where the pain was. This was bad, worse than just tendonosis. I feared I must have torn something, somehow.

So I went to the doctor. I got a referral from my GP and luckily could get an appointment to see a specialist within the week. I met with him yesterday. He seems like a good guy, young and smart; understanding of the climbing mindset. I told him the whole story and he agreed with Dr. Saunders' diagnosis. He took an x-ray (which looked fine) and did his own examination. He made me an appointment to have an MRI done so we could get a better sense of the damage. He strongly suggested I stop climbing, at least for a few weeks while we sort out how bad the immediate trauma to my elbow is and start some physical therapy.

I am really bummed out.

And the MRI this morning didn't help matters. Have you ever had an MRI? This was my first. I imagine the procedure would be bad enough if you could lie on your back. Even in that relatively comfortable position, the experience of sliding into that narrow tube and remaining perfectly still as the machine screams like an invading alien army for half an hour would be enough to induce existential terror. Add to this nightmarish scenario a position on your stomach with the bad arm outstretched, the other one pinned to your side, both arms falling asleep... and you get the picture. Not fun.

I still hope to have a climbing season. Maybe in a few weeks I can get back to it, taking it easy. I haven't been climbing outside since November and I am as desperate as a man can be to get out there. But I want to be smart and give myself the best chance to heal. I have a climbing trip planned to Squamish in June and I really want to be able to go. I must take care of myself until then.

I will keep you posted.

Getting old is a drag.

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