What I Learned from Physical Torture

I heard horror stories about physical therapy so I was kind of dreading the whole process after my ACL reconstruction surgery. The first visit went pleasantly enough.  “Oh, it’s not too bad,” I told my family and friends after the initial knee manipulation.

The second visit was a different story. I nearly jumped off the table when the therapist began massaging my incisions. One in particular was a bit swollen and extremely painful. “You shouldn’t be feeling this much pain,” the therapist said as she continued to press down on the incision. “Looks like you’re building up scar tissue. We have to work that out.” More pain. I held back a scream.

Then there was the famous “bending of the knee.”  Despite repeated icing of the knee, mine remained swollen, making it even more difficult (and painful) to bend it. I was pretty darn proud of my 93 degree bend on the first visit.

And then I was introduced to the bike. You know that contraption– it requires more than a 90 degree bend to get those pedals going ’round and ’round. I pushed the first pedal down and tried to bend the knee to bring it back up.

Holy freaking moly! Pain! Worse than childbirth! (And I gave birth at home.)

I looked at the therapist and whimpered.  “I don’t think I can do this.”

“Just pedal slowly.”  She set a timer on the bike stand. “Nine minutes.”

She stood there, watching me grimace in pain as I brought the pedal up. I felt like someone was taking a sledgehammer to the knee every time I reached the top. I made it up and over, but not without shifting my hip up and riding on my other foot.

“Good!  Do it again!”

There was no way out. I just closed my eyes and tried to get into that zone– the same zone that comes from hypnotherapy. The breathing. The visualization. The knee screamed with every pedal rotation.  There was no way out of the pain– only through it.

Just two minutes into the physical torture on the bike, I noticed a big shift in the pain level. By the end of the nine minutes, the knee was moving ’round and ’round at a much more manageable pain level.

On the next visit, I had a friendly little competition going with the teenager on the table next to me. She had the same surgery a day before mine. So we gripped our green straps and pulled our knees back, trying not to grimace as our therapists measured our progress. I managed to reach 112 degrees, but the young one hit 115 degrees of bend.

After spending the entire weekend icing the knee, I figured I would hit those numbers easy at the next therapy session.  “107 degrees,” the therapist announced.

“You gotta be kidding me!” I said. “What number should I be at by now?”

“I’d like to see 120.”

“Fine, you want 120? I’ll give you 120.”  It took several tries and a lot swearing inside my head, but I hit that magical number.

The body’s first instinct with pain is to react and withdraw. To get far away as possible from pain. To not have to feel it. But ironically, to heal from anything, to give birth to something new, pain is a necessary component to growth.  This applies to just about anything in life.

Physical therapy is like life. The only way to heal, to rebirth, to move on– is by working through the pain that’s holding you back.

“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.”   –Kenji Miyazawa

1 reply
  1. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I had ACL reconstruction surgery yesterday and start physical therapy in about 10 days. I heard that it was painful, but it’s good to know that you can fight through it. I’ll be sure to keep that in mind when I tackle the massages and the bike.

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