Road to Recovery

What to expect when a gym injury derails your fitness plan.

By: Dan Welden

No one can really prepare for an injury or the need for surgery. Life happens, and sometimes it leaves you flat on your back in a hospital bed, which can put a major dent in your fitness routine. There’s often a lot of pain, weight gain, loss of muscle mass, mental anguish, and solitude involved in the healing process. Unless you’ve gone through something like this, it’s difficult to understand. I speak from personal experience.

Last spring I sustained a significant shoulder injury. I was working out with my partner, who was doing bench presses with incorrect form. I should have taken off the weight, but I left it on to demonstrate the correct form. While trying to show him his error, I felt a pop in my shoulder. At first, it only caused minor issues when I was doing bench presses or shoulder presses. I was anxious about losing the muscle mass and definition I’d worked so hard for, so I didn’t want to let what I thought was a minor injury hinder my progress. Instead of resting to let my shoulder properly heal, I pushed through the pain. It got to the point where I couldn’t even lift my arm.

After several doctor’s visits, X-rays, muscle relaxers, and tons of pain, the doctor decided it was time for surgery. I felt so stupid for not just letting myself heal. My fear of an injury’s affect on my hard-earned physique only created a more complicated issue that would set me back even further.

I was referred to a bone and joint specialist to discuss the surgery. The doctor told me that I wouldn’t be able to work out for a while, and I might not have full use of my arm for a year. Although the doctor clearly stated what I should expect after surgery, I didn’t interpret it the same way. I’d never broken a bone or sustained a serious injury, so I expected to bounce back in no time. But after I woke from surgery, saw the blood-soaked bandages, and couldn’t feel my arm because of painkillers, I finally realized how long the healing process would take.

The struggle was real! From carrying my backpack to typing an email, I had a very difficult time managing life. I was also quickly noticing the negative changes in my body that I’d worked so hard to improve. But I decided not to let this significant setback get the better of me. With physical therapy I regained full use of my arm and, after receiving clearance from my physical therapist, I was back to where I was before surgery within three months. I took this as a life lesson and have been going strong ever since.

In hindsight, although every situation is different, here’s what I should’ve done to prevent further damage and also prepare for surgery:  

1. Know your body. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t ignore it. Go to a doctor and see what may be going on.

2. Follow the doctor’s orders. If the doctor says to let it rest, let it rest.

3. Get a second opinion. If surgery seems inevitable, a second opinion may reveal something unseen, potentially preventing the surgery or confirming its necessity.

4. Meet with a physical therapist. Before surgery, discuss in detail what to expect post-surgery and what you can do to insure a speedy recovery.

5. Make arrangements at work. Depending on the surgery, there could be a substantial recovery period that may require time off. Plan ahead and come up with a game plan to ensure all parties are on the same page.

6. Stay motivated and positive. Don’t listen to the inner voice telling you that all your time at the gym was wasted. You want to be the one who overcame the setback, not the one who let it destroy you.