Rotator Cuff Surfing Injury, Part 1 of 2: The Injury

So this whole damned post started like five weeks ago after surgery as a description of my post-operative healing regimen, after royally fucking my rotator cuff while surfing. But of course my brain went into creativity mode, and before I knew it, I had written an entire story about how the injury occurred before even mentioning the actual post-op regimen. So here’s the story. Part 2 is on the way with my detailed post-op healing regimen.

About 4 months before this post, I performed in a charity rowing event with some friends. We raced twice. I’m in pretty good shape, and I felt fine on race day. However, two or three nights later, I randomly started waking up in the middle of the night with nagging pain in my left shoulder. This actually came as a surprise, because my right shoulder has always been the primary pain in my ass, after throwing it out several times when I was younger doing boxing and martial arts. Anyway I began waking up 2 to 3 plus times per night, most days of the week, with my shoulder feeling like a tiny little gnome was digging holes in my humeral head and filling them in with salt and battery acid. I just couldn’t get comfortable.

I lightened up on my upper body workouts, and about a month later, the pain had mostly subsided. One day around that time, I walked out of my door to find Mother Ocean in a beautifully dark mood, resembling something out of a tumultuous Pirates Of The Caribbean scene, with red flags posted on the beach. For those unfamiliar, red flags are posted by lifeguards on days when the conditions and rip tide are so severe that venturing past the breaker for the average Joe could result in death, or at least extended unemployment. Much to my gracious fortuity, however, I’m not the average Joe, mainly I believe due to my intriguing combination of both fearlessness and stupidity. And damn that surf looked nasty, but oh so fun. I grabbed my board and slid into those turbulent waves, with my mind set to catch one.

Similar weather on a surf trip in the Outer Banks.

If you’re not familiar with surfing, let me give you a brief rundown of this day’s particular conditions. The waves were 5 to 6 feet high, with four- to five-second intervals. Basically, what this means is that you have to paddle through a shit ton of breaking waves to get to the place where you can actually attempt to catch them. And with every attempt you make, you have five seconds or less to regain your composure before the next one comes crashing down upon you. On top of this, the wind was onshore, making the waves a bit soupy and somewhat unpredictable. By any surfer’s standards, these are clearly shitty conditions. But on the southeast coast, you take what you can get.

I spent a good portion of my energy paddling out past the breaker, working hard to keep steady amidst Mother Ocean’s moody tides. But after a few attempts, I managed to wrangle my first wave, in a similar fashion that I imagine a toddler would wrangle a wild Shetland coming down from Angel Dust. But I rode it well, dropped back onto my board, and had no sooner turned to paddle back out, when a six footer began to break right in front of me.

I’m still intermediate in my surfing journey, but I’ve surfed enough to know what I should’ve done, which was to ditch the board completely and take a deep dive. What I did do was hesitantly attempt to duck dive with the board under the wave. I felt Mother Ocean’s swift punishment for my blunder almost immediately, when I found myself spinning in the washing machine of that breaking wave, a feeling that I know all too well, having spent my first two years of surfing attempts getting my brains rattled by similar washing machines. And because I had not initially thrown the board away, I was now blessed with the arduous task of holding onto it for dear life, lest it turn from a surf board into a stray torpedo, with my skull in its crosshairs. Somewhere toward the end of the break, the board was swept hard to my left, taking my arm with it. I felt an impressive pop in my left shoulder, followed by copious pulses of severe pain.

A visual depiction of similar conditions.

Going back to that fearlessness and stupidity, I was damn sure not going to allow the obvious dysfunction of my entire left arm, combined with the dragon fire that I could now feel from my clavicle to my fingernails, stop me from catching more waves, tumultuous as that surf may have been. I spent another 20 minutes chasing waves in that ominous chaos, until my left arm may as well have been an al dente spaghetti noodle. I then dragged myself out of that angry sea with one arm out of commission, and plopped down into my beach chair, because I was also damn sure going to enjoy my Drew Estate cigar and Malibu Black before going to the ER.

On that note, after some contemplation, having worked in the ER for almost 10 years, and absolutely positive that I needed an MRI (which wasn’t guaranteed with an ER visit), I elected to save myself the trouble and money by controlling the next 3 to 4 hours of blinding pain with meditation, mindful breathing, a gram of ibuprofen and around eight or ten more shots of that Malibu Black.

The next day, the pain wasn’t gone, but I could take the edge off with a strict alternating protocol of Tylenol and Advil. I altered my upper body workouts once more, stayed away from movements that were painful, and visited Dr. Todd Tupis at OrthoSC. He ordered the MRI, which showed a partially torn supraspinatus, the rotator cuff tendon which connects the shoulder blade to the top of the shoulder. Most viable option: Surgery.


Pre-op and high AF.

When Dr. Tupis went in arthroscopically for the repair, he reported that the supraspinatus was actually completely torn, and by the looks of the post-op photos, that tendon was slumped across the top of my shoulder like a damned broken slinky. Three anchors were used to reattach it to the bone. And so began my journey into recovery, slowing down, sitting still, resting and all that crap. Stay tuned for Part 2: Recovery.


Title Photo: Cullen Powell.

Outer Banks photo:

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