How to Promote Injury Recovery & Get Back in the Race
Most runners and other athletes experience injuries as part of extensive training. It’s simply unavoidable. But what happens when a serious accident results in surgery and rehabilitation? Is it possible to return to a competitive or intensive level again? With this guide, and tips from local trauma experts, full injury recovery is possible.
Dr. David L. Rothberg is an orthopedic trauma surgeon at the University of Utah Department of Orthopaedics who works with patients who’ve sustained traumatic injuries; in other words, he repairs fractures. He treats manly polytrauma patients, those with multiple injuries. Polytrauma injuries are usually sustained from high-speed motor vehicle accidents or falls. Dr. Rothberg says, “I see everything from grandmas who fall on the ice to rock climbers falling from the side of a cliff.” His job is to help them return to pre-surgery health and activity.
Rothberg works with patients long after the initial surgery as part of the rehabilitative team. He can see patients for up to a year or two after surgery.
According to Rothberg, most people can get back to what they were doing pre-surgery, “It is very rare that we would tell someone not to try,” he says.
There are many factors that affect injury recovery—starting with how good a job the surgeon does putting a patient back together. But Rothberg believes that one of the biggest factors is a patient’s own attitude, “There is a pretty intimate interplay between self-efficacy and rehab. Do they think they are going to get better? As much as we think as surgeons that we influence the outcome, the best thing is helping them know they can get better and have faith in their own recovery. People who do the best have the attitude of ‘I’m going to get better no matter what’.”
Road to Recovery
The trip to injury recovery usually begins in an emergency room. After surgery, patients can start self-directed therapy for the first six weeks. Stiffness is the biggest problem with a joint—whether it’s knee, ankle, or hip. The first step is to get it moving. This phase doesn’t involve stretching or endurance became the bone is still healing and can’t withstand pressure. Rothberg says that many athletes are so in tune with their bodies that they don’t need a therapist at this stage.
Around 6–8 weeks the real work begins—helped along with the orthopedic surgeon, physical therapist, and occupational therapist. Initial concerns are when they will be able to walk again and when limitations will be lifted. There’s a lot of tangible progress in the first three months; then the progress slows.
Attitude is Everything
“Mental anguish can set in when an athlete is taking so long to return to pre-injury activity. It takes more of a mental commitment,” Rothberg says. A high-level athlete can take a year or longer to get back what they lost. The average jogger can achieve their level of activity in 3–6 months. From Rothberg’s perspective, the hardest thing is counseling patients who are frustrated with how long it’s taking to recover.
He’s learned that patients have to set realistic recovery goals. On the timeline of recovery for high-level activities, patients should expect six months to a year before they compete at —a belief that recovery is possible to pull through a protracted rehabilitation period.
Setting a Goal
Rothberg recommends his patients think of injury recovery as training for the next level in their sport.
Athletes who set a goal to advance, from amateurs to pros, create a challenge for themselves and do whatever is necessary to achieve it. If they view recovery in that manner rather than creating a roadblock the works gets easier.
Rothberg has a sister and brother-in-law who compete in snow biking and says he’s watched them “torture” themselves to progress in the pro categories. The training regiments they use to advance are not unlike the regiments patients face to recover. It’s just a matter of getting to the next goal.
A sports career or active lifestyle doesn’t have to end with injury or illness. With good medical care and determination, it is possible to regain stamina, form and a competitive edge.