Or how to recover from multiple meniscus cartilage tears - a guide that might help fellow sufferers
In 2006 I ran the London and New York Marathons. I managed respectable, sub 4 hour, times in each and met the goals that I'd set for myself and I raised a good total for Macmillan Cancer Relief. I set about training for the 2007 run in London.
But in early March 2007, just at the end of a 13 mile training run, I was all of a hundred yards from home and just slowing down, walking even, when I suddenly pulled up sharply. I thought I'd pulled a muscle in my left calf. I limped home, wondering what I'd done. I'd run a good time for training, maybe 1h 55m or so, and hadn't done anything that I'd expect to cause injury - no tumbles, no uneven ground, no fast pace work.
Recovery Strategy 1 - Ice and Hope
A few days of ice and elevation went by, and it got no better. I had a pronounced limp and really felt the pain going up or down stairs. I upped my dose of Glucosamine and Chondroitin (there's no evidence that they help in injury situations, but I figured it was worth a go)
Recovery Strategy 2 - Ultrasound and Hope
I went to the physio to have it checked out. Her immediate view - not even 10 minutes into the session - was that I'd torn the meniscus cartilage, but she couldn't be sure. Maybe it was just a strain; the optimist in me hoped so. Some ultrasound, some galvani frog treatment (where they strap some wires to your leg and feed a current throught it resulting in lots of rhythmic pulsing of muscles).
I was due to go skiing a week later. The physio sourced a knee brace for me that had near-solid metal bars down either side of the upper quad and calf and a hinge joint at the knee, all aimed at keeping the knee from twisting (and doing further damage)There was no question, of course, of me not going skiing - I'd been looking forward to it for ages and the snow was rumoured to be great. The week of skiing passed without further injury, although any turns where I needed to put weight on my left knee suffered - and the one time I went down a mogul run (entirely by accident - I try and avoid the things normally), the results were calamitous. Even this year, I didn't try that run again.
Recovery Strategy 3 - More Ultrasound, Less Hope
After the skiing, there was no improvement (of course - neither time nor the exertion seemed to have made a difference although at least it wasn't worse). I looked for a different physio to see what someone new would think. A few sessions there, lots of exercises to work my quadriceps and hamstrings, the wearing of various leg braces and what not, and there was no change. Still painful at every step with worse pain on stairs. I'd started to cross roads at crossings, because I couldn't take the risk of needing to dart through a gap between traffic (I was confident I wouldn't make it)
Recovery Strategy 4 - Open It Up
In June (so 3 months after the original injury) I went to see a surgeon. He pushed my left leg this way and that way and within a few minutes said that he was certain I had a tear and that I'd probably had it since the run, not because of anything I'd done since. He didn't need to do an MRI - a waste of time he said given that I'd tried physio for several months. Cartilage tears sometimes happen because of an impact - a forceful twisting of the kind rugby players or football players might experience in a heavy tackle - and they sometimes just happen because bits of the body wear out. Maybe it's running, maybe it's the way that you walk, maybe it's a problem in the alignment of your joints, or maybe it was just my time.
A few days later, in June, I had an operation. It's a simple surgery. You're in and out the same day and can go home, just taking care not to put too much weight on the damaged leg. Within a few days you can cycle and do light weight bearing exercise (to strengthen the quads) and, in theory, after 6 weeks or so you can start running.
The photo on the top right, taken by the surgeon, is where I think the tear was. The bottom left shot shows the surgeon using the latest hi-tec instrument (it appears to be a downsized boat hook) to sort the cartilage out.
I'm using a demo version of software called "PixelMator" to edit these shots - so there's a logo in the middle of the shot. Once I've played with the software some more I'll register it and replace the shots with pictures without the logo.
Recovery Strategy 5 - Take It Gently After The Op and Then Build The Strength Back
I keep pretty good notes of my training and, looking back at the few weeks after the operation, I can see that I waited a few days and then started cycling (in the gym). The op was on a Friday and on the Monday there was no trace of a limp and only minor pain when walking. Within 10 days I was able to cycle a good 10k, although the pain was still there it was pretty subtle. I felt good
By September (again, 3 months after the operation), I'd jogged a little (on the treadmill and outside) and was ready to try a longer run. I went out for a 6k run and completed it in a careful and slow time of 36 minutes (versus a usual time of 28-30 mins). A week later I tried the same run again, at the same pace, but had to pull up after 3km. I could barely walk let alone run another step. I hobbled home.
This is the post-op photo of the knee. Nothing much to see, although if you look carefully, you'll see from the top left that there is less cartilage in the knee than there was before. It's not easy to tell the difference.
This Isn't Working For Me
I left running alone, went back to the physio and started building up my knee strength again. Maybe my quads were still out of balance.
Six months since the operation, ie January 2008, there was no change. I went back to the surgeon and explained the problem. The next day I had an MRI. It looked liked I'd torn the meniscus again, but in a different place. Maybe it was just weak after the operation, maybe I pushed it too hard or maybe I was just unlucky. Apparently these things happen in perhaps 1 in 5 cases - there's a second tear or a further tear that wasn't quite fixed the first time round.
The MRI - How It Should Look
Here's a picture of my knee. I've marked what a normal meniscus cartilage looks like with the red circles. You'll see they're on either side of the knee (in this picture, the front of the knee is on the left). What you should see with a meniscus is a roughly triangular black shape. When your cartilage is torn, you see something like this:
This time I've used a green circle to highlight the problem. You'll see there's a white line right through the middle of the previously clear black cartilage cross-section. This is, most likely, a tear.
A Second Operation
At the end of January 2008, I went for a second operation. Same process as last time, in and out within a day. Same plan for recovery, although I took it much easier this time and left it a couple of weeks before I went near an exercise bike.
Recovery Strategy 6 - What More Can I Do?
There's always Rest and Ice, and there's ultrasound, and there's strength building exercises for the quads and hamstrings. I'd been doing all of these, and I carried on doing them. They're the core of any recovery strategy. But I added some new things.
Powerplate exercise. The powerplate is a vibrating platform that supposedly improves recovery from injury, tones and exercises your muscles and so on. Lots of gyms have them now. I've been working on that 5-10 minutes at a time, 4-5 times a week. Does it help? Hard to say, but my weight training poundages are up and I can cycle further in the same time than I used to be able to before the powerplate.
New pills. I've scoured the Internet for any kind of over-the-counter pills that might improve things. I've landed on two that seem to make a real difference. It could all be the placebo effect but, you know what, if they appear to make it better, I'm ok to keep taking them.
The tablets are Super-Cissus RX (only available in the USA but appears not to be a substance banned by the IOC) and Arthrolactin. Both are readily available over the web and won't break the bank.
KneedIt - the last part of the recovery strategy is a new kind of knee wrap called the "KneedIt". It looks really weird (this is definitely not my knee by the way):
But it seems to help. Over the last 4 weeks I've got back into running. I started out at ten minutes and have built up to about 30 minutes so far, running every 3 or 4 days. The distances are nothing to shout about - the furthest I've run so far is 4.25km - but they're a big improvement on being afraid to cross the road in case my knee gave up on me half way across.
So all of these strategies seem to have played a part in getting me back where I am, wherever that is. For now, I'm sticking to wearing the kneedit most of the time, taking the Super-Cissus and Arthrolactin pills every day and hoping that the powerplate is really doing something for me, other than shaking loose every bone in my body.
Is It Fixed?
Probably not. I still have pain when I twist the knee, or when I stand up after a period sitting down. Sometimes it hurts going up or down stairs. I'm hoping that this is all part of the recovery process and that before long that pain will be gone too. I have few options left open to me now, other than trying out cortisone injections. I know that I'm nowhere near needing a new knee, so I'm not going to even think about that for another 20 years at least.
It's been a tough year. When you're used to running 3 or 4 times a week, suddenly not running at all is a big hit - and cycling or working out in the gym don't have quite the same buzz for me. Dealing with the pain with every step, and worse going up and down stairs has been tough too. But it could be worse: I am otherwise fit and mobile and there are plenty of people in worse places than me, so I'm not complaining. I'll keep plugging away and hope that it gets better soon.