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Injuries and Medical Advice

Living with a Bum Neck

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I was belaying when my partner fell 25 feet and landed on my head. My right ear went all the way to my shoulder, and I slammed into the wall, breaking my right arm and two neck vertebra. I am five weeks into wearing a collar and have pain at various points along my neck when I don’t wear it. I also have bulging discs. I think that rather than sit around, I should be proactive with alignment and muscle strength. Am I correct?

—Rachel Kelley


Holy flying butt-cheeks, Batman! Having someone sit on your head at speed is not how you think you’re going to get a serious injury at the crag.

I broke my neck while surfing a few years back—dived off the front of my board like a complete kook and drilled straight into a sand bank. Every day I get lancing pain that arrives like a renegade ghost rider wielding a samurai-lightning bolt—BOOM! It’s a knee-buckling and entirely unreasonable level of pain. I love it. Why? Because it reminds me that I am not a quadriplegic.

The effects of some injuries will stay with you for life, a little reminder of what can happen, and no less of a reminder of what did not happen. This is one of those times.

Your neck will be a veritable clusterfuck of injuries, fractures being but one. Any neck injury could produce an array of issues that will require significant ongoing management.

In the short term, the collar will give you some relief when your neck becomes tired from holding up your head, but get rid of it as soon as you can—immobilization will only short circuit the longer- term goal of strengthening your neck and regaining movement. How you achieve that is waaaay beyond this column, suffice to say you seem to be on the right road to recovery. You want a good manual therapist—osteopath, manipulative PT, chiro, whatever pings your pong—as your situation will require close monitoring. Did I mention strength? And range of motion? These are your new best mates. Neglect them and you will know about it.

The pain will subside, given enough time and rehabilitation, and life will resume some ballpark normality, but these injuries, and their downstream effects (such as early joint degeneration), will be with you in perpetuity. Expect aggravations; the sky has not fallen even if the pain seems to be full blast again.

Your injury does unfortunately illustrate an unexpected hazard of belaying and being in a position where the leader can either fall on you or pull you into their flight path. Position yourself out of harm’s way, anchoring to the ground, a tree or other immovable object if necessary.

Feature image by Colette M

This article appeared in Rock and Ice 243

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