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Shoulder Surgery Recovery Journey

 

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Brett’s 10 month recovery journey.


It took almost a year before I decided to have surgery for a partial anterior labrum tear in my left shoulder and the journey to follow has been life changing.
 
When I originally injured my shoulder, I thought I had just overexerted it. It happened while conditioning on a Friday after practicing most of the week. There wasn’t a sudden moment when I realized it tore, but I’m certain the tear was caused from inconsistently training two arm rollups and one-arm conditioning in the air. I hadn’t been putting enough attention and time into strengthening the supporting muscles around my shoulder that shoulder intensive skills such as rollups and one arm tricks require. My end of the week conditioning of those skills was a bit more than my shoulder was prepared for.
 
Luckily my tear was not full but a partial tear which allowed me to continue my aerial practice after the initial injury. Prior to surgery I was able to do a good portion of my aerial work with bent arms. I had pain and struggled with skills such as iron cross, rollups or drops that moved the arm too quickly or put too much pressure on the labrum. Straight arm hangs/inverts were also a challenge, as were pushups and handstands on the ground. Most nights I could not sleep on my left side as my shoulder would ache whether I worked out that day or not.
 
Even though my shoulder was getting moderately better after a year of being torn (I could have continued to rehab it), I decided to bite the bullet and get the surgery. Being pain free, and having a fully stable shoulder felt worth the recovery time for me.
 
I set a date, March 15th 2021, and spent the few weeks prior filming as much future content for our online program Silks Stars as I could manage. Two days after our last shoot day I had the surgery.
 
I felt mostly confident that the surgery would go well, as my doctor explained it was a pretty straightforward procedure, but the overall surgery experience was not a fun one. This was the first surgery I had to be put under anesthesia for, and it was the first time I received a nerve blocker in my arm, which made it paralyzed for about 24 hours, so I didn’t know what to expect. My body did not react well to the combination of drugs they put me under, including the narcotic pain killers that I was prescribed for pain afterwards. I was constipated for over 3 days, and could barely urinate.  At that point I went to the emergency room to make sure I was ok. I felt scared as it felt like my body hadn’t woken back up yet, days after the anesthesia. As soon as I stopped taking the narcotics and switched to ibuprofen my body started working properly again (phew).
 
Then came the 5-week period of wearing an arm sling. Learning to adapt to life with one arm, especially tasks like showering were a struggle. The mental game was also a big struggle. Going from working out and doing aerial 4-5 times a week, for the majority of the last 20 years to being mostly inactive was a major lifestyle change. Those first few weeks were tough.
 
Being a professional aerialist consistently for so many years, i had the mentality and engrained discipline to keep up my aerial strength at all times. If I ever couldn’t practice for an extended period of time, I would experience high levels of anxiety. To no surprise, that mentality continued after surgery. I was immediately putting pressure and expectations on myself to get back to the air as quickly as possible. I couldn’t brush away this deep feeling that I wasn’t doing enough, and that I could somehow do more to speed up the recovery. I struggled with letting go of control and accepting the reality of the situation.
 
Before I had the surgery, my doctor had given me a rough timeline that after 3 months post-surgery, I would be able to start getting back into aerial training. I grasped onto that as if 3 months was some magic healing number that was going to match up with. After 5 weeks in an arm sling, and 6 more weeks of physical therapy I got back a reasonable range of motion and some modest strength.  In some regards my doctor was right, I was feeling good and had made a lot of progress with my shoulder at the 3-month mark. I even climbed for the first time that day!  The problem was, I was overly ambitious. Two days later, feeling excited and motivated, I went for a jog and something did not feel right in my shoulder after. That night my shoulder was in the most pain it had ever been in. I was terrified that I may have re-torn my shoulder.
 
It took a couple months for my shoulder to start feeling better after that, and during that time I went into a very dark place mentally. I had no idea that jogging could cause such a setback. I felt deep sadness, anger, and hopelessness. I couldn’t shake the shameful feeling that I had let myself and my business down by my overly ambitious and naïve actions. My mental health hit rock bottom, and at that moment I realized that my recovery needed to become a spiritual one. I needed to learn how to take care of myself in a way that i had never done before. I needed to learn acceptance, kindness, patience, and peace within myself, or I was going to lose my mind.
 
I signed myself up for a mental health therapist as well as a new physical therapist to help me with in the next phase of recovery, which was vital to have the extra help as there turned out to be another major setback on the horizon.
 
I was just starting to get back to doing aerial exercises again, two months after my jogging incident when I badly injured a nerve in my neck. My physical therapist at the time was working with me in a broader way, rather than just focusing on my shoulder we began to dive into exercises to rehabilitate my body as a whole. She noticed I had a lot of tension in my neck and upper traps, which is fairly common in the aerial community, and even more-so in my case being post shoulder surgery. She then guided me through nerve gliding exercises (see link) to stretch the nerve that runs between the shoulder and the neck to help improve my posture and improve optimal shoulder function. She warned me to only do one set of nerve gliding exercises per day, but I didn’t listen. Even after everything I had been through, I was still carrying the ‘more is always better mindset.’ I was doing the nerve gliding exercises at home by myself and thought it would be a good idea to do them 3 times in one day. The consequence was a living nightmare.
 
Next thing I knew my nerve spasmed and sent sharp pain waves down my arm and into my face. My muscles in my neck and shoulder tensed up in desperation to protect the strained nerve. I couldn’t lower my right shoulder all the way down or turn my head to the left or I would experience sharp pain and spasms that would last up to hours at time. After being almost bedridden for a few days, I discovered it was ok to walk around as long I didn’t make any spontaneous movements. As you can imagine, this was nearly impossible for this free movement loving aerial artist! The only way I could prevent the awful nerve spasms was to stay present and aware of every single movement at all times. After numerous forgetful and painful movements of regret, I purchased a neck brace and wore it for almost two months. It’s been 5 months now since I injured the nerve in my neck and it seems mostly healed, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that only to do some movement that irritates it.
 
 
Example of Nerve Gliding exercise that caused Brett’s nerve injury (7:38 secs)
 
This has been the biggest growing and learning experience I’ve ever had. Aerial has always been a tool I’ve been able to use to express myself and be creative. It has been my go-to coping tool for anxiety, stress and to combat episodes of depression. Not only did I (temporarily) lose the ability to do the art form I’ve been so attached to for so many years, but I also was experiencing pain from my nerve injury anytime I got stressed or upset about it. It was torture. There was no more hiding from pain or grabbing for a silk to help cheer me up. I had no choice but to sit in uncomfortable pain, and learn to relax and surrender to the healing process. Through repetitive practice of having to sit through my pain, it has actually helped me to change my mind set. I’ve started to feel proud and appreciative of the tiny steps of progress I make day by day versus focusing on what I can’t do and worrying about how far I am from my goal of getting back to the air.
 
Currently I am taking each training day nice and slow, listening to my body and doing what my neck will allow me to do without it flaring up. I’ve been limiting myself to simple conditioning exercises such as holding pulling positions on the ground and doing inverts and climbs one at a time to focus on form and stabilization while being as careful with my neck as possible. The last couple weeks have been going great and I can’t tell you how much gratitude, and compassion I feel.
 
Even though this has been the hardest year of my life, I feel that I have made so much growth and have so much more respect for my body than I ever have. My goals this year are to continue to let my neck heal at its own pace, while simultaneous building to become a stronger and smarter aerialist than I have even been before. I’m optimistic and motivated with a new and improved mindset. Step by step, I am on my way back to the air!
 
My shoulder feels fantastic now. Even after everything I’ve been through, I don’t regret having the surgery. It may not have been the experience I wanted, but in some ways, I think it was the experience I needed.
 
Much love and well wishes for 2022!
 
– Brett

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