Having put a rib out whilst waterskiing in the Caribbean, I maybe should have listened more carefully to what my body was saying. But with an adventure quadrathlon to do two days later (or should that be a pentathlon since it also included a 100 foot abseil?) I was determined to get better fast. The resident osteopath fixed me up nicely, and I pronounced myself fit to participate in the fun on the following day. As it turned out, that was unfortunate. On the mountain bike section, I came off the bike and broke my arm. Yes, just like that – one compression fracture close to my right wrist. To put it mildly – ouch.
I bound it up with the only materials available – a napkin from last night’s dinner (why that was in the backpack I’ll never know) and a short length of elasticated bandage. I walked to the nearest accessible dirt track whilst my forearm started to swell dramatically, and awaited collection by the event organisers. Thence to hospital (after stopping off to collect my insurance documents and credit card, the ubiquitous necessities of modern life).
Breaking an arm (or any bone for that matter) causes some interesting physiological changes. The body goes into immediate stress mode: blood is diverted to the muscles, the adrenal glands pump out adrenaline and cortisol, and the heart rate and blood pressure rise rapidly. It’s a protective mechanism and the entire sympathetic nervous system is stimulated (Foex, BA: British Medical Bulletin 1999, 55 no.4).
Lying on the hospital bed, I decided to get to work on my body immediately. Controlling the pain was the first thing. When you’re in pain, the breathing changes from deeper, abdominal breathing to short, rapid gasps that deliver less oxygen to the tissues. That’s not useful – a different approach was needed.
I have never been good at meditation, being hopeless at sitting still for any length of time. Instead of meditating, I run. But on that Sunday, I lay there and focused. Really focused. On my breathing, on relaxation, on “healing vibes” to my right arm. I imagined myself back on the beach at the resort, listening to the sound of the Caribbean sea washing against the white sand. I imagined the lush forest surroundings, the steep hills behind the low-rise buildings, the hot sun, the sparkling water. It was an intricate, beautiful picture that I held in my mind, and my physiology responded accordingly. When the nurse entered to check my stats, she was astonished. Blood pressure – 130/78 (it often hits 200/110 with acute tissue trauma, but this wasn’t much above my regular stat of 110/70). Heart rate – 64/min (only slightly higher than my normal resting heart rate of 56/minute). Respiratory rate – 8/min. They took that one twice because they didn’t believe it.
By consciously creating a relaxing picture in my mind, I had effectively decided not to have a stress reaction. Back at the resort, plaster cast and sling on right arm, and having refused all pain relief, I laughed and joked with the people around me that it could have been much worse. In fact, my Facebook post for that day reads as follows:
“Thanks everyone for your concern. Came off the mountain bike and landed awkwardly. For the technical amongst us, I have a compression fracture of my right distal radius. But 3 good aspects.
1. I still have one arm and 2 legs that work fine.
2. I’m left-handed.
3. I’m in the CARIBBEAN!”
And what was the ongoing effect of laughing and larking around with people? Boosting my endorphin levels – natural painkillers.
The mind is an amazing thing, and it is intricately connected with the body. Last Sunday, I had first-hand experience of the power of visualisation to calm my pain and benefit my physiology. Certainly beats Ibuprofen!