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Bye Bye Knee Braces

skating and knee painWhen I was 12 I was figure skating 4 days a week and taking dance lessons once a week, in addition to the usual play and activities that kids do both within and outside of school. I also occasionally had swimming lessons, diving lessons, and gymnastics lessons. In other words, I was very active. But at that time my knees started to hurt.

They hurt when I ran. They hurt when I skated. They hurt when I rode my bike. And sometimes they hurt just because. So my mom took me to the doctor and then to the physiotherapist. I was diagnosed with bilateral chondromalacia patellae. Simply put, both knees did not have enough cartilage, the cushioning material, underneath my kneecap. That meant that the bones in my knees experienced more friction, resulting in pain.

I went to physio treatment every week for close to a year. The physio used ultrasound and a TENS machine, instructed me to ice my knees regularly, and gave me quad strengthening exercises. He also had me fitted for knee braces and shoe orthotics. I hated it all. Icing my knees for 10 minutes felt like an hour of torture. I regularly left in more pain after physio. The quad strengthening was fine, but actually, as a figure skater, my quads were pretty strong. Shoe orthotics in those days were not nearly as common as they are now. The only running shoes we could find that fit them were Brooks. Big, ugly Brooks. We did the best we could to find regular shoes to fit the orthotics, but I was a pre-teen and definitely NOT going to wear orthopaedic-looking shoes.

The knee braces. Those were the worst part. They were neoprene, supposedly breathable. But the rash at the back of my knees that occurred when I exercised and sweated proved otherwise. Plus, their “skin” coloured tone did not make them invisible.

Through high school and university I kept up my sports and added in more athletic activities, including volleyball, squash, and step classes. I kept wearing the shoe orthotics and the despised knee braces.

When I moved to Japan for a couple of years, I told myself that I didn’t have space to take the knee braces–poor excuse. Ha! I did still suffer knee pain. My main mode of transportation was a bicycle and the pain got so bad one time that I went to the hospital to have them take a look. The doctor there, without even touching or testing my knees, told me to stop riding my bike. That was how I got to work, so I bore through the pain and managed.

Time and again, I rediscovered my “Achilles heel.” I cried in pain most of my way down Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia (walking downhill is very hard on knees), I gave up after just one painful session of road running training for the Vancouver Sun Run, and my knees gave way when I stepped of the bike after my first (and for a long time, only) spin class.

Shortly after returning to Canada I discovered a “new” medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine. Before even trying out acupuncture, Chinese herbs, or any of the other therapies I now offer, I decided that I would change my path from sports medicine to TCM. In TCM school I received acupuncture and Chinese herbs. I started investigating other ways to help my knees and found that I had very tight hamstrings, so stretched and stretched.

During my 4th year of TCM school I sold my knee braces. Darn. I wish I would have kept them. But not because I want to wear them ever again. Because I’d like to have them as a reminder of where I was and were I am. I will not run distances on the road. But I can run on trail and treadmill and soft surfaces. I can ride my bike. Recently, I even ran down–the dreaded downhill!–Grouse Mountain on my snowshoes. I’m still careful. But, I’m now training to be able to run 10-12 miles on soft terrain for the Tough Mudder this year (2013).


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