Muscle Wasting – Use It or Lose It

Fitness and health professionals alike will often talk about muscle atrophy or muscle wasting. Anyone who follows a regular fitness program and has taken a break from it for some time can attest to his or her own very quickly reduced abilities upon returning to fitness. In my case, I’ve been back to CrossFit twice now in the past week after spending just over 3-weeks pretty much in bed. Of course, I’m not actually doing the CrossFit Workouts of the Day (or WODs), but am instead concentrating on rebuilding and maintaining everything but my healing leg, with a program built specific to my needs by my very talented coach, Meghan.

It’s surprising to realize that my strength abilities have more than halved what they were before. While pre-accident I was able to do biceps curls with 30-35lb dumbbells, now, I’m using just 12lbs. I was able to do a standing shoulder press with a 60lb bar, while now I’m seated, using 12lb dumbbells. It’s not possible to lift the bar without weight bearing on my leg (even while laying on a bench your feet must somewhat dig into the ground to stabilize you), so we substitute with dumbbells. I can do less sit-ups and push-ups (on my knees of course, to leave the leg out of it). And while I have learned to row with one leg, it’s takes far less time for me to become winded.

Muscle atrophy is a very real thing and it happens very quickly. While I knew this intellectually and somewhat physically after say attempting to run a long distance for the first time in a long time, I can now, thanks to this injury show you what it looks like visually. In this photo you can see the atrophy in my left leg very clearly.

This is from just 3.5 weeks of non-weight-bearing, in other words not using these muscles at all. The difference between each leg is huge and I thought worthy of sharing with you. Contrary to what it may seem, this wasting is not caused by the cast itself or malnutrition to the area, nor is it a direct result of the injuries to the leg. This is fully due to non-use. And while I’ve been given small exercises to do for my ankle by the surgeon, simply flexing and extending my ankle, I have very little motion and what I do have is extremely difficult to do. Here’s a short video clip showing just that:

This goes to show one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to start any sort of physical activity after being sedentary for any length of time. Fit people aren’t simply better than you at fitness as so many of us would like to believe. Stop beating yourself up with this line of thought! Even the fittest of people had to start somewhere too, and it’s always with difficulty. It’s not strength that makes a person fit. Instead it’s persistence, self-acceptance (it’s ok if you can’t run as far as the next guy, or lift as much as the girl in front you can – yet, you will!), and dedication that makes a person truly fit. And with fitness comes strength!  Once you get over the first few hurdles to becoming fit, what happens is a great thing fueled by endorphins, and it makes becoming fit far easier, even pleasurable for you.

Endorphins are hormones that get released with extended exercise. They are much like an athletes drug as they make you feel great (during exercise and for long after), and they are addictive. Endorphins however, are an addiction that’s actually good for you! If you really want to be more fit take the first few steps, grit your teeth through the first few struggles and before you know it you will be just that and it will become much, much easier!  And it happens quicker than you’d think.

After October 22, when I see the surgeon again who will presumably tell me I am allowed to start weight bearing again, I will show you the full extent of this leg’s wasting, and the progress I make building my leg back up!

I started writing this entry thinking of it as an update on my condition, but as I wrote I found there is a lot of information that is more beneficial to you and thus more important to share. So before I close I’ll give you a quick update on what’s happening personally with my recovery, in addition to the CrossFit attendance I mentioned above.

I’m doing well. The pain while still there is changing in nature. I can feel the screws and acute pain around my ankle joint. My skin often feels like it’s burning, especially around the surgical incision, where it’s most bruised still and in areas where the cast compresses it. I still don’t have normal sensation in my big toe or on the bottom arch of my foot. The pain is worse at night and first thing in the morning. During the day it seems to let up and I’m able to move around a fair bit more so long as I’m sure to take rest in-between with my leg elevated. I have not had to take any narcotics for a few days now and I’m hoping I won’t have to take anymore at all. For the pain, I am managing with just Tylenol & Robax – and even that I am usually able to hold off until nighttime.

I am getting a little better on the crutches and I’m generally feeling a whole lot better about my recovery. I have had the chance to get a full body massage treatment and I have had a Manual Lymph Drainage Therapy treatment as well. This has helped with my general soreness and the swelling around my ankle immensely!

And of course… My dedicated furry friends are still spending as much time with me as possible.