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How I Avoided Surgery With Physical Therapy and Massage

I’ve been a competitive volleyball player for most of my adult life. I was the captain of my high school team, played in college and years later, I’ve even won a couple beach volleyball tournaments. Beach volleyball has become one of my all-time favorite activities. Volleyball keeps you in the present. It’s the perfect game to practice mindfulness; there’s nothing you can do about the past points, the game forces you to focus on right now. And if you have spoken to me lately, I’m all about the mindfulness. It has become my way of life, so of course I was traumatized emotionally and mentally when after a tournament in 2018; my shoulder pain started and would not go away.

Brushing and washing my hair hurt. Lifting my handbag into the front seat of the car hurt. Grating a carrot hurt. Putting groceries up into a cupboard hurt. If the dog pulled the leash on a walk, it hurt. I tried doing exercises that didn’t recruit shoulder muscles…but I always seemed to feel a little “zing” of pain no matter what. Even jogging hurt my shoulder. My daily life was being constantly affected by pain, persistently reminding me that my body was broken.

I went into a downward spiral of thoughts. Will I be able to play in a couple months? Next year? Will I need surgery? Did it happen because I’m not in enough shape? Do I need to lose weight?

See how those thoughts escalated and where they were going? It was heartbreaking watching friends play from the sidelines. I got scared and depressed, quickly. I sought out any and all advice in this period of time. I spoke with anyone who had an injury story, looking for ideas and comfort. Should I be icing? Try massage? Physical therapy? Plain old NSAIDS?

I started with the physical therapist I had seen for a previous shoulder impingement a year before. She had treated me successfully over a nine month period. After three months of treatments, a lot of NSAIDS (hello irritated stomach lining), and a plateaued showcase of improvement, she referred me to a surgeon who specialized in shoulders. He was very nonchalant about my case.

“You have a labral tear. Try some more PT for two months. If it still hurts, we’ll fix it.”

Ten minute appointment…. I felt like a number. Next.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciated his time and specialty. But he lacked the time and, to be honest, empathy I needed as a patient. He also didn’t have a specific PT in mind for me to see. So I felt on my own with a treatment plan, limited by my insurance and overall lack of experience in how the heck I was supposed to navigate through all of this.

I went back to my original PT for three more months. In the mean time I tried chiropractic treatments. Every time he adjusted my shoulder, I felt pain. It felt wrong to me, but the chiro was always so professional and confident, so I went back each time they recommended.

I also found myself seeking massage. I was very fortunate to be attending massage school in the middle of this. I found multiple resources that were effective not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Massage therapists, in general, are selfless people. They get it. They want to hear your story, and they listen. I received work from a number of sports massage therapists, a Reiki Master, a Sound Therapy Practitioner, a Cranio-Sacral therapist, a Trager Practitioner, a Neuro Kinetic Therapist, and my class mates.

Then during one of my internships for massage, I found a physical therapist that not only listened, but told me I wouldn’t need surgery. (Cue Dr. Amanda Zariello of Restore Physical Therapy). She met with me for an hour every visit, made an extra special program for me to follow (well, it felt extra special to me), and found and worked on multiple soft tissue issues that had resulted from my shoulder tear.

Four months later, I joined a pick up league once a week. Six months later, I started my own back yard volleyball league. Playing volleyball again has empowered me. I can challenge and test my body again. I can run, walk the dog, and do all of the things I took for granted. And I can also feel grateful every day for my body.

Sometimes it can be tricky to figure out what route to take when it comes to pain and injuries. Fortunately, most professionals have your best interests at heart, and will do everything they can to help you heal. And even with long term treatment plans, it’s great to see more than one practitioner. Speaking from experience, I like hearing multiple opinions on a diagnosis or injury. It is ultimately, however, up to you. I was diligent with the work, and I was determined to get better. It has been a journey, and has made me an experienced massage therapist as a result.

*Writer’s Note: Your injury is just that, yours. We all respond differently to various treatments. Always follow your doctor’s recommendations, and, if needed, seek out professional opinions when you can.

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Amber is a licensed massage therapist in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

She has earned her mid certificate badge as a health coaching student of Institute of Integrative Nutrition.

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