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Crutching Chest Pain – What They Don’t Tell You About Using Crutches
My winter of skiing came to a halt mid-week with my seniors ski pass when I made a careless move to the top of the highest run. I went down hard on my hip on the frozen surface at the top of Mount Lincoln at Sugar Bowl, my favorite ski resort near Lake Tahoe, CA. Moving downhill, I grabbed my right ski and jumped over myself to get my ski down the slope. I gently experimented with what would move and what wouldn’t. I asked my ski buddy Harold to get ski patrol and tell them I needed help.
The ski patrol came and checked me – “What day is it, what’s your name, did you hit your head, where are you hurt”, etc. I told them that I could not move and that my right hip and leg hurt.
What skill and courage those children have! My position was too high, and there wasn’t enough loose snow for poles, leaving me with very little legroom to load the sled litter. But they did and I kept my leg and hip in place. They tied me up, covered me up and off we went. My ski buddy later told me he couldn’t stay with us. What a ride it was!
Shivering, I was admitted to the resort clinic and to a bed. Because it was the middle of the week, and they didn’t have a doctor present, they couldn’t take x-rays to define my injury. I couldn’t put weight on the leg and didn’t want to move it. They loaded me into my SUV and Harold drove me to the hospital in the truck.
I was admitted to emergency. More questions. “No, I don’t have any insurance.” I was hoping for stretched muscle and a lower price. The x-rays were inconclusive, so they did a CT scan and confirmed that I had fractured the neck of my right femur – where the leg bone connects to the pelvic bone. The doctor told me there was no choice; I must fix it immediately. This is the point where I broke down and hid my face in my hands.
“Is there an alternative, Doctor?” I asked, just in case.
“No. You have to have surgery tonight,” he replied.
About six hours after the fall I was prepped for surgery. I was told it would take about twenty minutes, and could choose to be awake with a spinal block or have general anesthesia. I woke up and it was done, cleaned up, sent me to the OR room for the night. I’m glad it’s done.
Post-op patients receive the best nursing care. In this case that means a young, handsome male nurse, lots of company attention from the staff. As many blankets as I want. More pain meds. Excellent! Then the next day the nurse came. That was a different story. Time to take off my duffel and start walking. Occupational therapists came in, physical therapists came in. Time to get out of bed.
When I woke up the pain meds made me nauseous. They brought crutches and made sure they were the right height. The occupational therapist helped me get to the toilet, so I thought I was fine. She tried to get me to take a bath, but I wasn’t interested. I wanted to lie down and go back to sleep. I didn’t realize that these were little “life skills” tests that had to be completed to get a good report on the medical chart that led to discharge.
The physical therapy technician worked with me to teach me the proper use of crutches. Do not hang your armpits over the top of the crutch, hold yourself up with your hands. I was assigned two sessions that day and if I didn’t pass the stair test I would have to stay another night. That thought conjured up images of huge hospital bills and dollar signs in my brain. Realizing I was uninsured, I had to get out of there!
A thought struck me in a haze of drugs. The meds are making me sick, change pain meds, so I can stand and walk on crutches, up and down stairs and out of dodge! It worked well enough and in time for my second physical therapy session. Walking down the hall to the therapy stairs, still feeling sick, I passed the stair exercise test and called my friend to take me home.
Thanks to my ski buddy for being my 24/7 caregiver after surgery. If not for his patience and generosity, I would be at home, in the snow, alone and unable to drive. My sister also came to stay for several days after a week. If it weren’t for those two, I would have gone up the proverbial creek.
About ten days after surgery, feeling much better and better, my sister and I went out for hamburgers. I started to feel a slight pain under my left arm, on the left side of my ribs. By the time we got home I was in need of a cold pack or hot pack, so try the cold first. That didn’t ease the pain, which was now affecting my breathing. I tried the hot pack and immediately felt increased pain and difficulty breathing. The pain it caused was great. I don’t think the fracture hurt that much. Taking shallow breaths to avoid further pain, I lied down on the bed to find a position I could sleep and tolerate. I thought I broke a rib or collapsed a lung! I’ve never experienced that situation, but I thought there must be some reason. Peggy recalled her experience with the pain of a broken leg two years ago because I was relieved to know it would go away.
“I remember getting crutches after I broke my leg. Within a week I got out of bed and couldn’t take a deep breath. I wondered if I had hurt myself somewhere. The pain was almost unbearable and I spent the rest of the day in bed taking shallow breaths and taking aspirin. It was. It was a restless night, and the next day I moved very carefully.” Peggy said,
“I found out a few days later that because I had spasms in my left upper back due to overuse of my muscles, I had also pulled the rib head out of alignment with the chest area, and my physical therapist was relieved, who knows what happened, to realign my back. I still have many more to come. Day had to be careful. It’s curious that no one in the medical field has mentioned that this could be a problem. I’m certainly not the first!”
In trying to use my crutches properly, I had pressed the crutch into my rib cage, resulting in tenderness and muscle tension that led to muscle spasms. The instructions for using crutches do not mention these side effects. I was so glad that my sister was with me and I knew what the problem was. I had to take shallow breaths, not move too much, and stop. I was in bed for 18 hours before I could get up and walk around. It was a week before the pain in my rib muscles subsided.
I called the doctor’s office a week later to inquire about another case and asked if they had any patients with my rib pain and shortness of breath. The nurse panicked, and said I should have come in, it could have been something serious, like a heart attack. She had not heard of other patients with this problem. I found this strange, as my sister and I had both experienced this. Later, I searched online for similar experiences, but found nothing similar to our chest-rib pain.
In researching my injury, I learned:
The incidence of leg injuries (from ski accidents) has decreased significantly. “The overall rate of injuries has decreased by 50% over the past four decades, and the rate of broken legs has decreased by 95% since the early 1970s. 1
· The femur or thigh bone is the largest and strongest bone in the human body. It is surrounded by many tissues like the quadriceps muscles and has a large “femoral” artery that carries a lot of blood. Because of this, fracturing the femur requires a lot of force and is also very dangerous. 2
Four weeks after surgery I am using a crutch, walking up and down stairs and driving. I feel improvement every day. Overuse causes pain and restricted movement. I intend to hit the golf course in a few months!
As I am unemployed I am developing two businesses that I promote online. My work is done from home. I couldn’t think effectively or sit at my computer for long periods of time when I was on painkillers. I expect it will take about six weeks to return to my home-based work full-time.
Hospital and doctor bills totaled more than $33,000. The hospital has a financial assistance program and I applied.
I wrote this article to share my experience with others who need to use crutches. I’d like to know if others have experienced chest-rib pain, how they’ve dealt with it, and what their doctors and professionals have to say. My contact information is in the resource box below.
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