Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Bees Knees

I'm not really talking about this particularly awesome Southern turn of phrase today.  #sorrynotsorry.  I'm talking about a subject a few of you commented on, and that's joint health, and how I run despite having prematurely arthritic knees.  Well, not only do I run, but I ski.  I ski moguls, guys.  With supposedly craptastic knees.  And if I can do it, I have all of the faith in the world that you can too.

**Warning:  This is a long post about a health related topic.  If this stuff bores you, it's all good if you move along now**

Can you spy my scars?  I technically have 5, although only two are readily visible anymore.

To tell this story, we have to go back in time.

Back to, oh, about 2000.  I was 15 at the time, and I loved to ski.  But I was noticing a lot of pain in my knees.  I was also a Junior Instructor in our local area Adaptive Skiing program, and doing a lot of silly, crazy, fun stuff on two skinny sticks at the time.  There were weeks when I would spend an entire week trying to get my knees in happy enough condition that I could ski again of the following Saturday.

Throughout High School, the situation just kept getting worse, and I kept just dealing with it as it came.  Until in early 2003, I was forced to deal with my problems head on.  I was ditching school with my mom to help out with the Special Olympics for our Region.  I had been working on a slalom race course, and we were going in for more gear.  My other course setters had already gone down, and I was the last one on the hill.  As I skiied down, one of my edges caught on a rock.  I was able to compensate, but right as I regained my balance, my edge dug into the snow wrong.  I crashed.  And as it would happen, that was the day everything went wrong.  Neither of my bindings released properly, due to some freaky physics.  My knee was bent in angles you never want to see a modified hinge joint move, and I knew something was wrong.  Lo and behold, I released the binding, and the snap crackle pop went off.  If you've ever snapped a ligament, you know what I'm saying loud and clear.  A couple of days later, my neighbor, one of the best knee surgeons in the state, confirmed our fears:  it was my ACL and my MCL, and while my MCL would heal, I would need full reconstruction of my ACL.  Oh happy day.

This news really slowed me down.  I was 17, with big plans and dreams on the horizon.  But We pressed forward with surgery, and on March 13, 2003 (yes, 10 years ago YESTERDAY), I woke up from surgery with a brand new ligament made out of a tiny scrap of my semitendinosus (part of the hamstring).  That was when the wonderful Dr. Dave delivered more bad news:  he'd scoped around in my knee during surgery, and I had sustained a large crack and soft spot in the post-patellar cartilage in my knee.  He informed me in that matter of fact way that surgeons have that if I wasn't careful, I would have to have a total knee replacement before I was 30.  It was the most terrifying news I had ever heard in my life.  He undoubtedly meant for it to be that way too, considering I babysat his daughters, and he didn't want me to encourage them to be any more reckless than they already were.

I had a remarkable recovery from surgery.  I surpassed every benchmark set by my physical therapists.  I gained back all of the atrophied muscle.  I graduated with honors, and in August 2003, I was cleared to start running again, mere weeks before my Freshman year of college started.  I was enrolled in the ROTC program, and I knew running was going to be a part of my life, for better or for worse.  We were all confident that I would be able to handle it.

Except that I couldn't.  Almost immediately, I started seeing flare-ups of pain in my knees.  I tried hard to work through it, figuring that I just needed to build more strength in my knees post-surgery.  I tried to limit my running to only the mandatory amount, but I was having trouble passing my running tests, because I wasn't running enough.  It was a really fine balance that I had to manage between not enough running, and hurting myself.  By my sophomore year of college, I hauled myself to an orthopedic specialist in Bloomington, demanding answers for why it hurt so badly to run.  He explained that my many years of skiing hard and crashing harder had damaged the cartilage in my knees so badly that I was pretty much arthritic.  He told me that running more than a mile or two at a time would be out of the question for me for the rest of my life, and gave me a month's worth of prescription strength anti-arthritics to get me through the "flare-up".  They didn't want to permanently put me on meds; instead, they wanted to manage my condition by limiting any and all activities that caused issues.

Luckily, at the end of my Sophomore year fall semester, I dropped out of ROTC and quit running altogether.  My knees were my own again, and it seemed like I could do anything again, so long as I was careful.  Sure, running was out, but that didn't really bother me... running had always been a requirement, not a joy.

So we need to fast-forward again (to make an already really long story a little less long) to 2010.  I was living in Longmont, but commuting to Fort Collins for work.  I had found an amazing little yoga studio that offered Hot Yoga, and I was absolutely hooked.  Especially when they talked about the "hero's pose" and how it could heal knees with cartilage damage.

Source: via Kim on Pinterest

Say what???  I had always been told that cartilage is very slow to heal, if it ever does, and here is this bold claim that this really super uncomfortable posture utilized a "tourniquet effect" to deprive the joint of fluid, then flood it with new, nutrient rich, healing lymphatic fluid.  I worked at it.  And worked at it.  And worked at it.  I was determined to complete the pose without the severe knee pain it usually accompanied.  And as the weeks went by, I noticed that my legs, and especially my knees, felt sooooooooooo good.  I walked a lot at work on hard surfaces in bad shoes, which had a lot of potential for pain.  Yet it just wasn't there.  Was it possible?  Dare I begin to think???

Well, I did dare, and in 2012, I decided to try running again.  It had been 9 years since that crucial injury.  I had lots of time on my side.  I had done lots of yoga, and I knew I could do more if I needed it.  So I took the plunge.  I invested in good running shoes that provided adequate support.  I started very slowly, like, no more than 3 minutes of running total each day, eventually building up to 30 minutes.  But in the end, I was successful in my goal.  I could run a 5k without bad, bone crushing pain.  Was it easy?  Not even a little bit.  Was it worth it?  Absolutely.

There were other factors that absolutely contributed to my success.  I worked hard to eat a healthy diet.  I got 8 hours of sleep a night.  I paid attention when my body said "no more", and I supplemented with low-impact exercise, like swimming.  However, I know that without the intervention of hot yoga, I would not be where I am today.  Our bodies are capable of incredible things, we just need to let them do their thing =).


  1. Wow Kristen - how difficult your growing up time must have been, that's a serious injury for someone so young! Michael did a similar thing to his knee during volleyball and never got it fixed. Of course, he fell down yesterday and landed on that knee and now he's all peg-leg and gimpy.

    Also... this post confirmed that I am never ever ever going skiing again. Ever. =)

  2. that is so so cool. and I think if we ever did go skiing together, you would kick my butt. Mogles are my worst enemy on a snow board. haha

    I should look into yoga more. Because I banged up my knee pretty bad last winter. The Dr. was positive I tore my ACL too, but it and my MCL were just sprained really really bad. but it still hasn't ever been the same.

  3. You sound pretty positive which is totally awesome :)
    I have big fears about hurting my knees with skiing, running, etc.... I am careful to listen to my body.

  4. true that! thanks for the inspiration, lovey!

  5. I've heard that yoga will either cause knee pain or mend it (depending on how much you listen to your body and instructors), I'm so glad you found it healing! :)

  6. this is an incredible story! I love that the yoga helped heal your knees! :-)


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