Here is the sad story of a man we'll call Sam. The saddest part is that his story is all too common, and it could be your story if you make the same mistake he did.
Sam loves to ski. This past winter, he spent every weekend and even evenings after work heading to the slopes at the resort where he had a season pass. But one icy day in December, he fell and landed on his shoulder.
There was immediate pain – a pain that was so bad, Sam stopped skiing and drove home with only one hand on the steering wheel. He put ice on his shoulder, took a few aspirin and went to bed. The shoulder was still sore the next day. It hurt most when he lifted his arm, so Sam stopped lifting his arm. But there was no swelling and no redness, so he decided not to go to a doctor about it.
The severity of the pain seemed to lessen over the following days, though it was still persistent. However, Sam continued skiing – and taking aspirin and ibuprofen. Nearly a month had gone by. Then came the day Sam will never forget. At the end of January, he was skiing through a grove of trees when he didn't see an exposed rock. As his skis hit the rock, it sent him sprawling. He put an arm out to protect his head from the fall. Unfortunately, it was the same arm with the painful shoulder he had hurt in the previous fall.
There was a sharp, painful yank, and then all the pain went away. But now Sam could no longer lift his arm. This time there was no question about seeing a doctor. In fact, this time required a visit to the hospital emergency room, where multiple X-rays were taken of his shoulder.
Devastating news. Sam had completely ripped apart a tendon of the supraspinatus in his rotator cuff. Surgery would be necessary. His ski season was over.
The rotator cuff consists of four muscles, with tendons at both ends of each muscle. It allows the arm to be lifted and rotated, and is a frequent injury among active people. But as Sam's doctor explained, his symptoms showed that the injury began with a minor tear of the supraspinatus. It would probably have healed by itself if he had come in to see him originally about the vague, yet persistent pain.
Yes, the diagnosis would also have meant the end of his ski season, but the complete tear and resulting surgery now meant the end of his biking season and of the workouts that he did regularly to stay in shape for his activities. Most of the following year would be spent on rehabilitating his rotator cuff after the surgery, a slow and painful process. And the surgery itself would leave an unsightly scar.
Sam's story is certainly not unique. Many athletes and active folks put up with persistent pain that actually predicts a more serious condition if neglected. That slight ache in a knee could be the symptom of a partially torn or sprained ligament, ready to rip apart if stretched again.
This problem is not limited to joints. A cracked rib is painful, but if not given time to heal, if it breaks and becomes displaced, it will require surgery. Always remember that persistent pain really needs a doctor's assessment. Otherwise, the person who may be taking care of you will be a surgeon.
Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly , which offers the latest training, diet and athletic information.