As I looked at myself in the mirror, I thought of the long road that led me to this day. I was about to leave for my high school’s sports banquet to receive an All-State Softball Award for a season that I played while recuperating from an injury that left me unable to use my wrist. All season, I had played with a restricting brace with a metal bar in it that kept the wrist of my throwing arm in a neutral position, making it difficult to throw accurately and impossible to swing a bat. I spent the season fielding at first base to ensure most of my playing time was spent catching with little throwing and bunting my every at-bat. There wasn’t a day during that season that I wasn’t in pain. I was unable to participate in regular team drills or batting practice and eventually was relegated to working the pitching machine for the rest of my teammates trying to get swings in. I was frustrated and in pain, but most of all I was stubbornly determined to play the game that I love. The best twist to my story was that my main source of injury was not my wrist.
I remember one afternoon I went to the grocery store with my mom to pick up what we needed for dinner. We packed the car with our pasta casserole supplies, and when I braced myself on the back seat of the minivan to climb in, I had this sharp pain in my wrist. I blew it off as temporary, thinking something just needed to pop and would pop within the next hour giving me the relief I needed, and I continued on with my day by ignoring it. By a week later, I couldn’t even hold a pen to take notes. The pain in my wrist had become so intense that I was crying in the middle of my 5th-period Chemistry class, unable to think of anything but the extreme pulsing pain in my wrist. Taking Advil did little to help my pain, and if I moved my wrist at all my pain just became worse.
My mom took me to my pediatrician who took x-rays and found nothing wrong but decided to give me a brace and refer me to physical therapy. Physical therapy? I was very skeptical and, honestly, afraid of the idea. What could a physical therapist do to help me? I was already maxed out on the amount of pain I could handle and was so terrified of some stranger touching and moving my wrist and making my pain worse.
On my first day, my physical therapist, Sarah, measured the motion and strength in my wrist, asking me to move it this way and that. When she was finished looking at my wrist, she looked up at my elbow and then at my shoulder. I was perplexed but was happy to complete the tasks she asked of me by moving my arm in different ways. Eventually, she had me complete a few upright push-ups against a wall. She called my dad over to see what she had found as I completed a few more reps. As I moved through the motion, they could see my shoulder blade sticking out and moving in an abnormal way. Sarah explained that my wrist pain was being caused by a weakness in my shoulder. Because my shoulder wasn’t doing its job properly, my wrist was trying to pick up the slack and was being overloaded. Well, how is that possible?
I was an overhead throwing athlete. I used my right arm to throw a softball or serve a volleyball, constantly using it for the same repetitive overhead motion of swinging down in front of my body. I was also a student, consistently hunching over my pen and paper during classes and keeping my arm in front of me to write or type. Sarah taught me that all of these motions require the same movement at the shoulder, bringing it forward and turning inward toward the body. This position made my shoulder extremely unstable, causing problems to occur all the way down to my wrist.
Once I knew my problem was with my right shoulder, I started to notice the warning signs I had previously ignored or dismissed as normal. My right shoulder would loudly pop at least once every morning, either through the movements I made during my morning routine or the first time I raised my hand in class that day. This was rarely painful, but very noticeable in volume. When writing essays or taking notes in class, I would hunch over my pen and paper, turning my body to the left and swinging my right arm out like a chicken wing. I rarely sat with upright posture, preferring to slouch and keep my shoulders rounded forward. I honestly didn’t even know I had muscles in my back that were supposed to keep my shoulder blade in its proper place.
I started working with Sarah before my softball season started. Throughout the season, she worked with me on decreasing my wrist pain and improving my shoulder mechanics, allowing me to continue to play the sport I loved. When my name was called at the sports banquet, I couldn’t believe it. I was 17 years old and accepting an award for the season I had just completed while injured. I struggled throughout the season to make myself a competitive player, and I know I had Sarah to thank. Through her education and sport-specific rehabilitation techniques, I was able to maintain my softball skills and adjust them when needed.
Today, 12 years later, I am still playing volleyball and remaining active, but the knowledge I learned in physical therapy greatly improved my self-awareness, quality of life, and allows me to better and more quickly keep correct pain and functional issues on my own without seeking more medical attention or taking pills. I will forever be grateful for the lifelong knowledge my physical therapist provided me.
Mary is an assistant at Judice Sports & Rehab