How to Cope with Sports Injury Treatment On the NHS
In early 2015, I discovered I had torn the labrums in both of my hips. The labrum is a ring of cartilage located inside the rim of your hip socket that acts as a rubber seal to help hold the ball at the top of your thighbone. Torn labrums cause sharp pain with hip extension and rotation and a painful dull ache for hours after exercise, which means I’ve had to completely stop deadlifting and any bounding exercises.
Sports injury on the NHS means a rollercoaster of scans, surgeries, and long waiting times. (Photo credit: Pixabay)
My injuries were caused by a nasty combination of naturally occurring bony protrusions on the balls of my thigh bones and twenty years of high-impact cross training. Torn labrums are normally treated conservatively through physiotherapy and, if that fails, as it often does, through surgery. I’m being treated on the NHS and am currently awaiting my first arthroscopic surgery.
Here's what I’ve learned about dealing with major sporting injury through the NHS through hard-won experience, and what you should be prepared for if you have to do the same.
Expect Long Waiting Times
From the moment I went to see my GP about my pain, I had to wait three months to see a sports injury specialist at a nearby hospital. From there I was offered physiotherapy, with a three-month waiting time before my first appointment. After a few months of physio not having much of an impact on the pain, it was agreed I’d need surgery. I then had a two month wait to see the surgeon, and now, having been referred for surgery, have been told the waiting time for surgery is up to eighteen weeks.
Bottom line? When you have a medical system that has to cope with a population of sixty-four million plus people, things do not happen quickly. Accept that from the outset.
Set the Right Rehabilitation Goals
My goals of getting back to competitive running times and increasing my deadlift PB were as important to me as being able to move around pain-free. My surgeon’s primary objectives were the latter. It’s important to understand that after a major injury you might have to re-assess your goals. That doesn’t mean completely giving up on the idea of athletic achievement, but you’re setting yourself up for huge disappointment if you’re assuming once you’ve been treated you’ll be able to train as you did befoe your injury.
Accept that you won't be able to train as you did before you got injured. That way, the closer you progress to what you were once able to do in the gym, the better you’ll feel about it.
Don't Mix Private and NHS Treatments
I thought I might be able to speed up the NHS treatment process by getting some of the scans I needed done privately. My thinking was that the NHS doctors I was seeing for treatment would be able to make a diagnosis off of the back of them.
However, on offering them to my treatment team, I was told the NHS only accepts tests done within the confines of the NHS system. I had wasted hundreds of pounds on scans that needed to be re-done anyway as part of my NHS treatment.
Be Mindful of the "Benefits" of Clinical Trials
After first seeing a surgeon, I was offered the opportunity to become part of a clinical trial in which I would be randomly selected for physiotherapy or surgery. I had been told participating in a clinical trial would speed up the potential treatment process, so I readily accepted.
I ended up being selected for physiotherapy, but it turned out I would only be offered eight treatments over five months. Given that I’d previously been seeing a private physiotherapist weekly with little impact on my condition, I started to think I should pull out of the trial. The final nail in the coffin was when I was told that a kickboxer who had previously been part of a similar trial had gone through the physio and follow up appointments only to decide he needed the surgery a year down the line. By subsequentally withdrawing from the trial, I then had to go to the back of the queue to see the surgeon again with a view to going down the standard NHS route of referral for surgery – which meant another two month wait.
The key thing to bear in mind with these type of trials is that they’re looking to establish the best treatment options within the confines of the NHS, which is laudable, but from a selfish point of view, aren’t necessarily in the best interests of you the individual. In a clinical trial situation, weigh up how much you value the greater good compared to your own recovery.
Don't Stop Training Altogether
It’s easy to get so frustrated by an injury that your training falls to the wayside. But injury doesn’t mean you’re destined to become an unfit mess. The key is to re-adjust your goals. Work muscle groups you’ve neglected, particularly those around the injury site that help take pressure off damaged structures and help post-surgery recovery.
You might even be able to keep training damaged tissue by re-adjusting intensity, or working it in different ways. In my case that’s meant knocking down running distances, switching from high weight back squats to shallower, higher volume front squats, and doing ten minutes of joint stretches three times a day. Of all of these changes, the stretching is the one that’s had the biggest impact on keeping my training regular and at a high intensity.
Be Weary of What You Read Online
You’ve probably had a GP tell you that you shouldn’t try to self-diagnose or read about the outcomes of post-surgery recovery on the internet. I understand their logic – that, largely, people only write about their results when they’ve had less than favourable outcomes.
You can, however, get a balanced picture of what to expect by specifically searching for stories about positive outcomes. I have a couple of different bookmarked stories I re-read when I’m feeling down about what lies ahead and they always give me hope.
Be Proactive In Your Strategy
Ultimately, when you sustain a major injury, you'll initially feel frustrated and angry and you're entitled to – to some degree. But it's important to channel your frustrations into being proactive in terms of pushing for treatment and training around the injury.
As well as getting you back to full strength as quickly as possible, this strategy will help you build your fitness in new ways, and develop the mental strength to overcome any other training challenges you face – whether that's a tough workout, or another injury further down the line.
What's better than a positive attitude? Not getting injured in the first place: