I can’t fucking believe this.
I must have repeated that phrase twenty times in the first eight minutes. There are moments in our lives in which reality – brutally uncompromising reality – bangs on the door of our brains, and we brace ourselves against the door like a character in a zombie movie. We nail boards across it, cram furniture in front of it, hold the knob as tight as we can. Despite our desperate efforts, reality slithers its fingers through the frame, and tears the whole door off.
Just like that, I stood face-to-face with reality. In this case, the reality was that my arm was properly fucked. Just before reality tore the door off my brain, my bodyweight had torn the connective tissue off my biceps.
When I look back on it now, a week after it happened, I struggle to find the key, the ah-hah of why it happened. Becca and I, mid-way through our winter trip to El Chorro, Spain, decided to go back up to Poema de Roca. Really, I convinced her to go up with me because I wanted to send. We walked up at a lazy pace, and I warmed up on a couple of moderates on the right side of the cave. The air was cool, the sun pleasant. I was psyched.
Specifically, I was psyched to send Swimming Through A Shark Attack, a mega-classic 5.13 that climbs out the steepest line of the Poema Cave through a labyrinth of tufas and stalactites, even climbing downward for a few moves. I used my first attempt to work out a better (read: knee-bar dependent) way to do the stalactite-wrestling crux. After the crux, I got a comfy double-knee-bar rest before the final four moves to the anchor. I knew I would send.
I floated up to the crux on the next attempt, not even pumped and with barely an elevated heart rate. I confidently pulled into the knee-bar, bumped to the stalactite, released the knee, and BRRRREEPPPPPPP.
I let go and asked my wife to lower me. By the time I hit the ground, my right bicep had knotted up to something resembling a large lemon at the top of my arm.
I can’t fucking believe this.
This is what I hate about rock climbing. There I was, sitting in a beautiful cave of rock in southern Spain with my wife. I have a healthy heart, a low-stress life, and lots of great friends. Sure, my right biceps had less structural integrity than the cooked gristle you cut off your steak, but overall, my life is pretty awesome. And yet, as I pulled off my climbing shoes, stuffed them in the backpack, and started hobbling down the trail with my arm in a makeshift sling, all I wanted to do was clench my fists, kick a rock (or puppy), and lament how much the universe must hate me. At least the universe could have let me clip the chains before it fileted my biceps.
I’ve had climbing injuries before, and I knew this one was for real. We went down to a hostel and did a cursory internet search. The symptoms I was experiencing suggested that I might have torn my distal biceps tendon, the one connecting the lower end of the muscle to the bones in the forearm. An email exchange with a physical therapist back in the States confirmed that this was a likely diagnosis and that it will probably need surgery. My PT also noted that this kind of injury needs to be treated quickly because the muscle slowly contracts up the arm (I already knew that just by looking) and the tendon can scar, making surgical repair more difficult and less likely to have good results. So, after more emails and a few international phone calls, we changed our tickets to get back in a few days.
We spent our remaining days in Spain being tourists in Granada and Madrid. We got back to Colorado on December 30. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get doctor’s appointments. It’s been a process of triage, trying to find the doctors who have the best reputation for this kind of injury and the one who can see me the soonest. I have an appointment later today with a physician’s assistant and another one on Friday with a surgeon.
A week after the initial injury, things have changed a bit. The swelling increased for the first four days and has since diminished. The blue and yellow jaundice look has spread over my lower biceps and forearm. The muscle is less contracted than it was, allowing it to look somewhat similar to a normal biceps. I have much less pain, about ninety percent range of motion, and low strength (but not total weakness). I can carry groceries, hike, run, cook, and hug my wife. Basically, I can do most daily activities with minimal discomfort. The idea of aggressive pulling, like for rock climbing, seems like a very bad idea, and I doubt my neurons would even let my muscle contract in that way. It’s easy, given this kind of progress, to be optimistic in thinking that I’ve dodged the bullet.
This is, however, optimistic. The reality is that, despite most dudes’ love of big biceps, the muscle is mostly a secondary assistant to movement rather than the primary mover. The biceps main job is to rotate the palm upward (known as supination) when the elbow is bent. It is partly responsible for arm flexion, a job really done by the brachialis muscle which lies under the biceps near the elbow and by the brachioradialis, the fin-like muscle along the top of the forearm. What this means is that one could have a very damaged biceps muscle and still have fairly good arm function.
Now, I’m off to the PA to get more info, and if I’m lucky, an MRI. In the last week, I’ve gone from slamming the door on reality, to opening it and learning as much as I can. It’s the best I can do, considering the circumstances.
I’ll continue to post updates along with more information and resources about this injury and treatment.