INSIDIOUS CYCLING INJURIES. PART I: A CAUTIONARY SPINAL TALE

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This is Part I of a series on preventing long-term cycling injury. Not all, but mainly spinal and joint issues. I am very genuine about not wanting anyone to suffer as I do, and above all, not to have to stop cycling.

This is Part I of a series on preventing long-term cycling injury. Not all, but mainly spinal and joint issues. I am very genuine about not wanting anyone to suffer as I do, and above all, not to have to stop cycling.

I’m NOT an expert. I did a relevant degree and I’ve suffered spine-related nastiness most of my life. But I can claim to have accumulated a balanced wealth and breadth of experience that I’d like to share. I hope it proves useful. Form your own opinions about whether it is!

The best known injury to a cyclist is broken collarbone(clavicle). Collarbone breaks are notable as they immediately stop you riding, unless you are Tyler Hamilton and like grinding your teeth down.

But around six weeks of care and even plenty of work on the turbo trainer and you’re off again. A collarbone break is, generally, an annoying briefly painful blip in your cycling life. And a nasty rite of passage for serious cyclists.

If you know me, you’ll know I bang on about my bad back a lot. Apologies for that, but it has, does and will dominate my life. I’d much rather (and I have thought about this properly) break my collarbone again than suffer as I do now…

I WANT TO SCARE YOU INTO PAYING ATTENTION!

I’m not sure where to start, so here’s a list of how my life is affected. I cannot:
Run.
Play any contact sport (that includes footy).
Sit longer than 30 minutes at a time at a desk.
Turn to talk to someone without turning my entire body.
Lift up a child.
Carry shopping.
Drive for more than an hour.
Walk around a busy market or museum (its a weird thing where if I have to make little steps in a crowd, my muscles cramp up!)
Have mad rough sex. (Unless it is done with care. Which is kind of a contradiction.)
Do less than an hour of stretches every single day.
Sleep on a strange mattress.
Jump.
And….Ride a bike very often at all. Especially not race. I have only been able to ride a little bit for 8 months of the last 2 years. In my Twenties I was told I would never ride a bike again.
(Etc.)

The last one is the biggie because of course I love cycling so much. I get that dizzy feeling when I talk about cycling. Like a teenage crush. Seriously. It is part of me.

I’m 38 and getting closer and closer to never hitching my leg over a saddle ever again. I’e not been pain-free for years.

My lumbar spine MRI. Spot the crap vertebrae!

My lumbar spine MRI. Spot the crap vertebrae!

If you’ve met me, I look pretty healthy. I don’t stoop or limp. But that’s because if you do see me I’m either treated, drugged or just on a rare good day. If you don’t see me I’m working from my laptop, on my bed, hurumphing.

Underneath this normal exterior I have various previously herniated disks in my neck and lower back that intermittently bulge out against my spinal cord. That respective section of the spinal cord controls the nerves branching from it, that control the muscles, organs and facets of me for that corresponding bit of spinal cord.

When I have a bulge I will always get severe muscle tightness or spasms, which range from very sore to unstoppable cramp. And funny buzzy hands, feet, eyes, etc.

These are the weird side-effects of trapped nerves. Plus sudden shortness of breath, headaches, a dead foot, knee pain, stomach cramps, dropping stuff, etc. What I call ‘electric shocks’ that zap through me. Its all a bit annoying. And because it isn’t a visible injury, one that is difficult for many to understand, or even believe, unless you’ve suffered back pain before. Which is a hell of a lot of us.

So moving on from the self-pity, what has this got to do with cycling? Well I do ‘blame’ my cycling for a good chunk of it, though it is likely I was always going to suffer in some way. I’ll never know. But here are the events and facts that won’t have helped:

i) I raced a great deal as a teenager. I was best at time trials and had a pretty extreme position. Stem ‘slammed’ right down and a high seat on a small frame. Like the pros.

1993, Kirkby CC kit. Note the raised stem, for training.

1993, Kirkby CC kit. Note the raised stem, for training.

ii) I crashed a number of times, which happens to anyone who races and trains a lot, especially in Junior/low ranking races! I smashed my collarbone and it fused about 4.5cm too short, pulling my shoulder in. The hospital offered to rebreak it, but I refused. Oops… If the surgeon says something should be rebroken, get it done!! My left clavicle still pops out of the joint when I raise my arm. Yuck.
iii)I was a very very skinny kid. I weighed 62kg (I’m 178cm tall). I was a stick with pair of quads attached, and some veins. All I did apart from cycling was running in Winter and drinking Guinness (in Winter). My wife met me 15 years ago and thought I’d just come out of hospital. She asked what was wrong. I was a good climber then though!
iv) I had a number of jobs in bars, clubs and wine merchants in my Twenties. These all involved carrying a lot of heavy boxes. We used to carry 3 boxes of beer or wine at a time, out of bravado. We used to pull trolleys with 10 cases of water up stairs. I was so thick.
v) I moved onto sedentary desk work, in film production. Hours sat at a desk, crouched over laptop and phone pressed between shoulder and ear. Locked in position 12 hours a day. Even lunch. Oh deary me.
vi) I crashed badly last year. Entirely my fault. I made a bad decision to jump a ramp at dusk, span through the air landing far beyond…on my back. More idiocy. I ended up in intensive care (in case my spinal cord was crushed) strapped to a spine board for 2 days. You know when they say, "do not move an accident victim, just call 999"". Well don’t move. I did. Hospital staff hate spine injury victims who say "I didn’t want to be any trouble". I was one, and I got the bollocking of my life.

St. Georges' Hospital, strapped to a spine board, head taped down, playing with my iPhone bored out of my mind!

St. Georges’ Hospital, strapped to a spine board, head taped down, playing with my iPhone bored out of my mind!

vi) I have Spina Bifida Occulta. This sounds bloody terrifying, but actually its very common. Its just a malformation of the spine. A vertebrae is incomplete. But it pops out of place. Just to throw into the mix. Woot.
vii) I’ve had 5+ herniated (slipped) disks. We’re not sure how many, because until I found good experts, I was left to languish in bed with painkillers, unable to walk.
viii) I reckon I’ve spent at least £50,000 on treatments, special mattresses, etc, in the last 10 years.

All these things somehow mixed together to bring me to where I am right now. My situation today is I cannot walk my dog, lift anything, ride my bike until next year and I’m taking opiates for the pain. I’m sick of it and terrified I’ll never ride again.

So I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.

In the next instalments I’ll take you through preventing and treatment.

Enjoy your cycling! You lucky so and so. x

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