And How I Healed Myself
I once pulled my right hamstring so badly that it bled under my skin. I’ll tell you my bizarre story so you can learn what not to do, and worst case scenario, how to heal if you too get injured.
When it happened, I was so stiff that I couldn’t bend forward properly. During forward bends, I’d try to hinge at the waist, but my back would curl up, my hamstrings would scream, and my fingertips would land just below my knees (I’m glad those days are gone).
Back then, I didn’t know anything about flexibility training. I’d done lots of running, swimming, and had even done some weight lifting, but I had no idea how stretching worked. And this is where the trouble started.
“I had no idea how stretching worked. And this is where the trouble started.”
A friend convinced me to join her for a hot yoga class after work, and I reluctantly agreed. She was already six months into her practice and swore it was life-changing. I was pretty heavy at the time and looked like a big white whale in the mirror, sweating and grunting as I tried and failed to achieve even the most basic postures.
To add injury to insult, I got so sore after my first class, I couldn’t walk straight the next day. I lived in the Lower East Side in Manhattan and my commute to work was a leisurely 1.5 mile walk over to Lower Broadway; but I was so sore, that walk just wasn’t happening without some help.
So what did I do? I took two Advil (a popular brand of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, ibuprofen).
When that didn’t completely wipe out the pain, I took four more. Before class that evening, I took six more. Stupid, I know, but I didn’t want to admit I was too sore for a yoga class. After all, it was just some simple stretches, right?
Very quickly, I fell in love with yoga. It was wonderfully, horribly, amazing. Those early days went by in a flash, and I continued to pop Advil every four hours. In yoga classes, I carried on with my white whale flop-sweat-stretch routine; and each day, I yanked on my hamstrings with every ounce of strength I could muster.
Pain be damned, I was bull-headed about touching my toes before my monthly membership was up.
LESSON #1: Never Underestimate the Power of Painkillers
Fast forward a couple weeks. Standing in line for the shower after class, my teacher said, “Luke, what’s that?” I was still dizzy from yoga and only half-conscious, so when I saw the pool of blood gathered behind my right knee, I figured it was just a weird bruise.
“I think you should get that checked out,” the teacher said. And that’s when I started to wonder. Could I be bleeding? On the inside?
Yup, I was. I’d torn my hamstring so badly I had internal bleeding and massive swelling. After the Advil wore off later that evening, I realized I was in constant pain that didn’t go away completely for over a year.
Once I realized I’d messed up (big time), I went straight to my doctor who told me to quit yoga. He told me my hamstring was so damaged, it’d never be 100% again. Bull-headed to the end, I decided that wasn’t an acceptable answer, so I fired my doctor.
A sports therapist was next. He did ultra-sound sessions that he claimed would “break up the scar tissue,” but it became obvious that what was actually happening was my damaged tissue was getting aggravated and inflamed during our treatments, and it was slowing (rather than speeding) the healing process.
Next up, a chiropractor gave me some wimpy exercises designed for people in their last days on earth. The exercises included reclined leg lifts in sets of 10, weightless leg flexions and all kinds of other silliness meant to keep hospice patients from getting bedsores – not for overcoming serious injury.
Today, I know dozens of extremely skilled body workers, physiotherapists, and massage therapists, but the good ones are an exception—so be forewarned. Many well-intentioned professionals (with credentials) can do more harm than good.
LESSON #2: Patient, Heal Thyself!
As the saying goes, “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.” With healing your body from injuries, I believe this is always true. Intelligent nutrition, corrective exercise, and a skilled medical professional can help you, help your body, heal itself—but no one person or one thing can fix you (except you!).
In my path to self healing, I read everything I could find with mixed opinions galore. I focused most of my research on dancers and martial arts students since they represent movement systems most similar to yoga but with a much higher incidence of injury (yoga injuries are actually very rare).
Lastly, I turned my focus to my old standby: nutrition. And the self-healing protocol I developed as a result was as counter-intuitive as you’d expect, and extremely effective. Today, my lumpy old hamstring is stronger and more mobile than ever. It’s ugly (see photo above), but it works great. Here’s what I did…
LESSON #3: Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate (RICE) = Bad Advice
With everything related to health and wellness, conventional wisdom is mostly wrong. With torn hamstrings, the pop health advice you’ll find is downright terrible. Medical professionals as well as anyone with experience in sports injuries will quickly tell you that “RICE” and anti-inflammatory drugs are the key to healing. At best, this is a half-hearted, band-aid approach, and at worst, it sets you up for re-injury. Let’s unpack this.
Rest: yes, it’s important to take rest after your initial injury. Depending on the severity, up to 6 rest days might be needed, but many people rest until the pain and injury are completely gone. This is a bad idea that sets the stage for re-injury. To “heal strong,” you have to start moving again as soon as that initial trauma passes, usually 3-5 days after it happens.
Ice: ice is helpful in reducing inflammation, but your body is not stupid. It gets inflamed for a reason—to help you heal! Inflammation gone wrong can lead to infection which is obviously a bad thing, but assuming there is no risk of infection (and usually there is not), ice stands in the way of your body’s natural healing response and is a bad idea. Since it slows healing, unless you’re really suffering, leave it alone.
Compression & Elevation: squeezing and elevating an inflamed area can actually be very helpful for drainage, particularly if you have excessive swelling and fluid blocked up (like I did). Compression and elevation are “smarter choice” alternatives to the popular ice and anti-inflammatory drug protocol. How do you compress a hamstring? Usually, you’d use a tight sports wrap available at most pharmacies and sporting goods stores.
To elevate the injured area, just rest it atop a stack pillows on your bed or a stack of books on a nearby chair. While both compression and elevation are safe and in some cases effective, remember that once the initial swelling and fluid build-up passes, the benefits are minimal, so it’s not something to focus on beyond that first week.
LESSON #4: Don’t Stop Stretching – Keep Moving!
After my injury, everyone I talked to (including yoga teachers) told me to stop practicing until I healed. There were two fundamental problems with this.
Firstly, I was totally hooked on yoga and hated missing even one day of practice. Secondly, while extended resting did help my pain subside, as soon as I’d do anything after, my injury would flare up just like before.
NOTE: there is a huge difference between “healing” and “healing strong.” If your goal is just to get over the pain and make the injury go away, doing nothing will get you there faster. That is true. But if your goal is to heal as strong and mobile as before, you have to keep moving.
“Most people think pain-removal is synonymous with healing. It’s not. Just because it stops hurting doesn’t mean it’s healing.”
Here are some more counter-intuitive things I learned:
Skip the massages. I’m a huge fan of body work. I think it’s tremendously valuable for soft tissue mobilization and relaxation, but strong massage can actually elevate cortisol levels and create an inflammatory response. In some cases, this is desirable, in the case of soft tissue injury, it’s not a good idea.
Body workers will often tell you they intend to “break up the scar tissue,” but you don’t want to break up your scar tissue. You want it to lay down and organize new tissue functionally, and you cannot do that with a massage therapists’ thumbs or elbows. You have to align and organize scar tissue through functional movement.
Say “No” to Hot Yoga. I love the heat, but it masks pain and turns off your natural messaging system that would otherwise say, “Stop! Too much!” If you pull your hamstring, it’s probably best to stay out of the heat for at least 2-4 weeks (maybe longer), and when you return to the heat, take it slowly and monitor your response carefully.
No jogging. Jogging is extremely demanding on your hamstrings, so it’s not the best hamstring healing activity. Walking is good, cycling is great, and swimming is absolutely amazing. On a bike, just cruise around (nothing hardcore). In the pool, get a kick board and do laps. That up-and-down motion with water resistance is great for strengthening and intelligently organizing those new tissues on the backs of your legs.
Fire up your quads. Your quads (of the leg muscles) are the opposing muscles to the hamstrings, so you want to engage them strong for support every time you’re folding forward, even just to pick something up off the floor. Sometimes it can be helpful to grab your quads with your fingertips and squeeze them tightly to feel the strength on top balancing out the weakness around back.
Bend your knees. With a slightly bent knee, your quads automatically engage a little thus protecting your hamstrings, so micro-bend your knees in all your forward folds (even if your teacher yells at you).
Practice at 80% your maximum. You need to keep moving and stretching, but you don’t want to push to your max. During your healing period (which can last many months), you have to consciously back off to 80% of your maximum so you’re helping to heal functionally not aggravating the injury.
LESSON #5: This is Chess Not Checkers – Take it Slow
Your healing time all depends on how severe the injury. A small strain might heal in 1-3 weeks, a pull could take 2-3 months, and a true tear will usually take 6-18 months to fully heal. Sounds depressing, I know, but if you follow the routine above, after about 4-6 weeks, you can do just about everything you did before, you’ll just “feel” your hamstring and will have to consciously throttle your practice to avoid re-injury.
Make sure to always self-assess the day after a yoga practice or exercise routine. Has your injury gotten better or worse? Is it inflamed? Did you push too far in some postures? Self-awareness will be your best friend here, so stay conscious to avoid re-injury.
LESSON #6: Food & Supplementation Can Help
The food you eat impacts your inner eco-system, your tissue health, and your inflammation response dramatically. During times of injury, your nutrition is more important than ever, so make a concerted effort to ramp up the healthy, healing foods in your diet.
First off, sulfur-rich vegetables should be included daily—and perhaps at every meal. Sulfur is one of the most abundant minerals in the body but often lacking in our diets. It’s essential for tissue regeneration and health, so be sure to include veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage. Garlic, leeks, and onions are also sulfur-rich and taste great added to many dishes.
To fight inflammation naturally, try to include fresh turmeric, flax seeds, and chia seeds in your diet. Pineapple is also a great choice as it contains the enzyme, bromelain, that is anti-inflammatory and aids in tissue health (during my healing, I ate an entire pineapple every day).
On the natural supplement side of things, you’ll want to consider: 2-3 grams of MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), 400-800 mg of buffered Vitamin C, 400-800 mg magnesium (dark chocolate is my preferred source), and anti-oxidant rich greens and green juices. Many students have found our YOGABODY Stretch formula extremely helpful in healing.
SUMMARY OF TIPS FOR HEALING A TORN HAMSTRING
Rest – take up to 6 days of rest after the initial injury. Wait for the bulk of the inflammation to subside, and then start your healing protocol.
No Dugs – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs will make the pain go away, but they do not aid in healing and make you much more likely to reinjure or deepen your injury. Avoid them altogether unless absolutely necessary, and never take before a yoga practice or exercise session
Keep Moving / Keep Practicing – functional movement is the key to healing strong and mobile. Work slowly, at 80% of your capacity, and stay extra-vigilant with your injury assessment to keep it safe.
Heal Yourself – if you have trusted health professionals to assist you, do recruit their help in your healing process. But no matter what, remember that you must heal yourself. Everything and everyone that helps is just an “assist” to your body’s own healing capacity.
SUMMARY OF FOOD & SUPPLEMENTS TO HELP HEAL
Turmeric, garlic, onions, leeks
MSM, magnesium, vitamin C
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