Being a Hiker with Chronic Injuries

Living with Pain and Not Giving Up

We put our faith in our doctor’s ability to fix us when we are hurt, but what happens when they can’t fix you?  What does it feel like when you’re told, ‘there’s nothing we can do except refer you to pain management’?  It feels hopeless, unreal, like you’ve been given up on.  I’ve been told, ‘there’s nothing we can do’ twice now and have had to come to terms with the fact that I will always been in some form of physical pain on a regular basis, but I haven’t given up.  I won’t give up what I love regardless of how much pain I’m in.

Franconia Ridge from Mount. Cannon

The First Injury

The burning pain radiating through the heel of my left foot was the beginning and it all started back before I hiked.  Nine months of ignoring the pain and I finally went in for one of many appointments and given a diagnosis: Plantar Fasciitis.  I was subjected to every treatment available, (cortisone shots, night splints, walking casts, massage, stretching, icing, iontophoresis, ultrasound massages, and finally surgery) and in the end I was left in more pain than when I first stepped foot into a doctor’s office.

The Second Injury

Overcompensating for the inner foot pain in my left foot led to a stress fracture and landed me in a cast for 6 weeks.  That pushed my right foot pain over the edge and I ended up with Plantar Fasciitis in my right foot, too.  After having the cast removed from my left foot, I vowed to myself I would never step back into a doctor’s office looking for them to fix me again. I walked (limped) away from the doctor’s after being referred to pain management and never went back.  

Then I stepped on trail.

 I can honestly say that I believe hiking fixed my left foot.  I know it sounds bizarre because you would think walking for multiple miles at a time would make it hurt more, but as the summer progressed, my foot pain gradually went away.  I believe it was walking uphill for miles that stretched out my left calve muscle and alleviated the tension on my Plantar Fascia and in turn made the majority of the pain go away.  I have days where it hurts but for the most part it’s been better for about a year now.  My right foot is still injured but the pain is manageable and I haven’t been back to a doctor for either of my feet for over 3 years now.

Krummholz on Mount. Jackson

The Third Injury

Fast forward to November 2016. I had hiked over two dozen mountains in under six months and all was right with the world.  My foot pain is tolerable and I’ve discovered a passion for being in the mountains that is stronger than anything I’ve ever felt before.  Then out of nowhere, I wake up for work in the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt before.  Sharp pains are shooting down my left leg.  I try everything to alleviate the pain and nothing works.  All I can do is lay on my  back with my leg bent at the knee and focus on my breathing.  After about fifteen minutes the pain finally begins to subside and I get ready for work.  I shrug the experience off as a pinched nerve from sleeping wrong and go on with my day.

Then it happens again.  And again. Finally after the fifth night waking up to excruciating pain, a numbness in my lower left leg, and an inability to lift my left foot all the way up, I decide it’s time to go to the ER.  Multiple tests later and it’s determined that I have an unspecified growth in one of my lower vertebrae pressing on my sciatic nerve.  I’m referred to another doctor and prescribed steroids to shrink the inflammation and hopefully alleviate the pain.

Multiple appointments and tests later, and it’s determined that I have a pinched sciatic nerve causing foot drop in my left foot and numbness in my lower leg.  I am referred to physical therapy and told that the growth isn’t something they would operate on unless it causes more extreme problems.

I feel hopeless, frustrated, angry, and disappointed.  I pray the pain doesn’t return and every night I go to bed struggling to fall asleep out of fear that I will wake up in the middle of the night in pain again.  But it hasn’t happened yet and I begin to fall asleep easier as time passes.

The Franconia Ridge from Mount. Garfield

The Present

The pain is still there but it’s different now.  It’s more of a constant sharp pain that sits in my lower back as a quiet reminder of a growth that controls whether or not I end up in debilitating pain again.  I alter my movements, stand up slower, and bend down carefully because of the pain.  My sleep is beginning to be interrupted now by the sharp pain that sits in my hip and I shift my position in bed every few minutes when the pain becomes too much.

And today, I made the decision to talk about it.

To acknowledge that it’s there and it’s a problem.  I’m scheduled for another MRI to see if the growth is worse or better, referred to another doctor, and told that maybe there’s something else they can do to alleviate some of the pain.  In the meantime, I’m given the OK to continue hiking, to do what I love.

Mount. Washington

What Does it Mean to Hike with Chronic Pain?

It means I can tolerate being uncomfortable for a lot longer without complaining.  That I don’t notice that I’m getting a friction burn on my lower back after a day of hiking until I get home and see the rash because my pain sensors are thrown off.  It means that although I have these different injuries that should stop me from hiking or doing anything physical, I don’t let them because I love hiking.  I like to see these injuries as gifts, now.  They have given me a reason to be grateful for my ability to still get out there and do what I love because some day I may not be able to.  My feet still hurt (especially my right one) and my back is still messed up but, I press on.

The hardest part of having these injuries is being told by other people that I should “be careful” or “take it easy”.  Just because I’m carrying around these injuries doesn’t mean I can’t do things.  And to be honest, both my injuries are made worse by sitting around.  I don’t want people to pity me or treat me like I’m broken and can’t do things for myself, I want them to treat me like everyone else.  I want them to push me to succeed in spite of my injuries and cheer me on when I set out on a hike.

I am not broken and I don’t want to be treated like I am.  Being a hiker with chronic pain is like being a hiker, period.  We’re all in some form of pain while we’re out there pushing our bodies to their limits and hikers are some of the only people I know who can understand why I keep pushing on through the pain.

Take the pain and feed it to yourself again and again and let it be the foundation of the you who comes out the other side. – Nicole Antoinette

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Comments 3

  • Avatar
    Belinda : Nov 11th

    Thanks for this encouragement! I have some arthritis in my knees and one shoulder, and most of my family think I”m crazy for hiking, especially in areas where the terrain can be really rough on the knees. I’m determined to hike the AT, even if I go slow and have to take breaks. Life is what you make it. Happy hiking!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      New Leaf : Nov 11th

      Hey thanks I appreciate it! I say do what your body lets you and you know what feels right and when you’re in real pain and causing a problem. 🙂 Happy hiking to you as well!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Joliene : Mar 1st

    Thanks for this. I’m dealing with recent chronic pain & injury news for lesions deep in my talar domes of my ankles. Climbing fall years ago. Osteochondral lesions don’t heal easily or even at all. As a life long trail runner, this is hard news. But, lucky for you and me, my pops has endured 50 years of chronic pain from a logging injury to his back and has continued to do what he can, which has included dog mushing and snow camping. It’s a fine line between what one can handle and what causes more damage. You’re right it is a gift. And it is a challenge those with chronic pain and/or who practice endurance sports can really understand. How are you doing now? Your article was comforting in these times of transition. Doctors always keep telling me what i CAN’T do, when I’m more interested in learning what I CAN. You rock.

    Reply

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