Specifically, rotator cuffs, because that’s what I messed up in my right arm.
My wife and I have become avid CrossFitters. I won’t say it’s the best thing for everyone, everywhere, but it’s working great for us. Specifically, it’s engaging and motivating, and we have a great community. But that’s another post…
So, weird shoulders. As it was explained to me, your leg is inside your hip, basically. If you were to remove your muscle and tendons, your leg bone would still be inside your hip, or at least, it would require some force to separate the too. No so for the shoulder. If you remove the muscles and tendons, your arm would just flop away, nothing remotely connecting the two. Your arm is held inside the shoulder “area” by for main muscles plus some tendons and other miscellaneous things. These four main muscles work together to keep your shoulder in one place and working together. If any of these muscles get out of whack, things go bad. Straining or pulling a muscle there can produce pain in a very wide area and variety of places, as muscles are strained and end up pinching nerves in seemingly unrelated areas of your arm. For instance, I experienced a lot of pain in my arm between the elbow and shoulder, but the actual injury was behind/below my shoulder. Shoulders are weird.
Right around memorial day of 2015 I started to learn how to do butterfly pull-ups . I’ll be honest in that I wanted to learn how to do them because they looked awesome, and at the same time sped up pull-ups. I had been doing crossfit for about 1 year by then, and while I didn’t think I was the best in the gym by far, I still thought I was strong enough.
I was half right.
I did in fact learn butterfly pull-ups, but could only do 10 or so unbroken. Unfortunately, while I could do them, I don’t know that I was doing them particularly well. They require a lot of shoulder strength, and when you’re fatigued, they can be particularly rough on your shoulder. I don’t recall a specific “oh crap I just broke/tore/strained something” moment, but I’m 95% sure that butterfly pull-ups lead to my eventual “rotator cuff tendinitis”. Interestingly enough, the pain/discomfort that began to plague me the following 7 months after was in my arms and not my shoulders.
I started feeling very tight in both my arms, particularly between the shoulder and elbow, basically identical spots in both arms. I would describe it as a nerve pain, mostly when my arms were progressing to a full extension above my head. For a month or two, I just used a lacrosse ball to massage my arms before a workout or during small breaks, and it mostly went away. Mostly.
The pain progressed to the point where some movements above my head were nearing impossible. Sharp, sudden pain caused me to drop a barbell a time or two. It even got to the point where my arms would just passively ache while sitting at my desk in the middle of the day. I decided to take 3 or so days off to recover some, take some ibuprofen, and hope my “sore” arms would loosen up and the pain would recede. After 5 days of not exercising and my arms still aching after basically no activity, I decided to see a doctor.
The Dr. suggested I had rotator cuff tendonitis, a rather unpleasant thing but better than having a torn tendon. The treatment was a few weeks of physical therapy and general don’t stress your arm much. Fortunately it was a fairly limited set of movements that triggered the sharp pain, so I still had use of my arm, I just couldn’t do everything.
The recovery process has been long, but I’m happy to say that I’m nearing the end I think. I did 5 weeks of physical therapy, meeting 2-3 times a week with a therapist, and learned weird things about the 4 major muscles and tendons in the shoulder and rotator cuff. Most of the pain has subsided, and I’m back to doing full workouts at CrossFit instead of scaling to avoid using my arms or being too stressful on them. The pain does resurface some, but with better use of a foam roller and stretching, it’s mostly being manageable.
I should be back at 100% by the time the CrossFit Open arrives (end Feb 2016), however, the time off and time scaling has left me with pretty weak endurance and strength. While I’m doing the full work outs, I feel like I’m just miles behind people I used to keep up with. It’s very … infuriating. I’m trying to resist the temptation to just go crazy to keep up, and instead work on pacing and endurance with good form and build up to it, but it’s proving difficult. I know that rushing it will likely just lead back to injury, but it’s incredibly difficult when you’re so frustrated from not being able to do what you used to do, or keep up with the people you used to keep pace with. It’s discouraging.
Of course, it will get better if I maintain that patience to build up the strength and endurance. The road is long but worth it in the end.