So you might have noticed, I have been a bit quiet recently on social media, or you may have even heard some rumours.
Well I feel I’m finally ready to speak out about what’s going on. I definitely don’t want any sympathy or messages asking me how I’m feeling, as this is something that has prevented me being more open sooner. I’m sharing in the hope that it helps others.
For the last 2 -3 years I have been struggling with a shoulder injury. I never stopped doing my rehab or seeing my physios and I would take 2 weeks to a month off where I could to try and recover. However whilst being injured I still competed in 3 major worldwide competitions and went on more tours than I can even remember, all of which definitely didn’t help my body.
Somewhere along the line I definitely started to acclimatise to the pain and completely underestimated the severity of the injury. I competed in Pole Art France by doing as little as I could, yes I would work on my routine and choreography almost everyday intensely but then I would try to avoid all other training and stresses on the shoulder those days (apart from rehab). I even took almost a week off before the competition just in case I made the shoulder worse beforehand. The days after Pole Art I was inundated with shoots, training and performances. I actually had a full day of performing the very day I got home, which I had to freestlye because I was so worried about making my shoulder worse by cross training before the competition. After this busy period my shoulder and my body was craving rest, so I took a month off. After the month had passed and my shoulder hadn’t improved at all, I asked my physio to refer me for an MRI.
As I lay still in the MRI machine my shoulder was so uncomfortable, I knew something must be wrong. The report came back half a week later and showed that I had a large, full thickness tear to my rotator cuff (supraspinatus) tendon with significant retraction.
So what does this mean……?
Your supraspinatus is one of 4 incredibly important rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor) that all work together to keep the humerus pulled into the socket especially when doing overhead activity (i.e. pole, aerial).
Supraspinatus in the most commonly torn tendon out of the four but damage to any of the rotator cuff muscles can lead to considerable amounts of pain, lack of shoulder function and atrophy (I will explain this term in a sec).
The difference between damaging your muscle vs damaging your tendon – tendons don’t really ever heal by themselves. They don’t have the elastic properties or the bloody supply (which contains nutrients for healing) like muscles do.
A partial tear is when only a part of the tendon has torn off of the bone. A full thickness tear is when the entire tendon has torn/separated from the bone. Full thickness tears are graded from ‘small’ to ‘massive’. Mine was estimated to be at least a ‘large’ 3cm tear, which was in fact turned out to be a little bigger.
The only way I can explain retraction is the level of deformation your muscle (in this case supraspinatus) has undergone from it’s normal position. The more retraction you have the less likely you will be to EVER return to a high level of sport.
The good thing is because I was so religious with my rehab regardless of the amount of pain I was in, I didn’t appear to have much fatty atrophy to the rotator cuff. Fatty atrophy is when your muscle starts to deteriorate from underuse and muscle fibres get replaced with fat. It is really common with chronic rotator cuff injuries, think of it as your muscle slowly dying and losing function. The more fatty atrophy you have the more likely you are to NEVER full regain function of that muscle.
So you might be able to guess what decision I had on my hands. At this point I had lost so much function and mobility in my shoulder and I couldn’t sleep much at night because of the pain. If I carried on, the tear was likely to get bigger and bigger and as we know from earlier – tendons do not repair by themselves. Surgical repair looked as if it was the way forward.
Surgery Pros and Cons
With surgery it’s very difficult to guarantee if you will ever have the same level of shoulder function again. You may or may not be able to return to your level of sport depending on the success of the repair and the rehab. Because the shoulder is such a complex and mobile joint the recovery time is long, especially for a procedure like this. Most major shoulder surgeries require at least 4-6 weeks in a sling (day and night), and you have to find a good chauffeur as driving is of course not permitted! Hopefully you have a nice loved one that doesn’t mind seeing you so vulnerable and naked (a lot!) because getting dressed and washing is one of the biggest missions post op.
After months of religious range of movement exercises and closed chain rehab exercises it’s 6 months – 1 year before you’re looking to return to your sport. That’s not even considering common complications that can occur post op like ‘Frozen Shoulder’ which again add to your recovery time frame. Oh and after all of that – there is a fairly high risk of re-rupturing and undoing the surgeon’s good work.
So instead of wanting to hit someone in the face the next time they say or think ‘It’s just shoulder surgery’ instead I really pray that they don’t have to go through the same. As you will never really understand the severity of it until it happens to you.
So there are two types of rotator cuff repair, partial and full.
Both are usually keyhole procedures which involve making two small incisions, sometimes more (I woke up with 4) one for the camera and one for the instruments. For partial rotator cuff repairs the surgeon will simply ‘neaten up’ the damage. For FULL thickness rotator cuff repairs it is a lot more complicated. Patients are often given a ‘nerve block’ which is an injection to the neck that the anaesthetist will give you so you have no sensation in your arm for 24 hours post op, this is to help you deal with the pain. The surgeon will usually detach the corocoid ligament to get better access to the rotator cuff and bony points. They will then remove any bony spurs that might rub against the recovering muscle/tendon. After the surgeon has removed all the severely damaged parts of the tendon, they will then drill small holes into the head of your humerus to insert ‘anchors’. The surgeon pulls the remaining tendon/muscle over and attaches it to these sutures in order to create a ‘new’ tendon. If they see anything else that is damaged they will perform more procedures to repair those structures too.
The heart-breaking thing for me (and most professional athletes in this position) was, to continue with my career, I had to put a major part of it on hold. There was no way I could continue with the level of pain, lack of function and things were only likely to get worse.
I don’t perform, travel and teach because it’s my job, I do it because it’s my passion. And training is not only my ‘release’ but it is also a major part of me and who I am. The thought of having that taken away from me makes me feel lost.
But I am not the only athlete who has had to go through this (Kobe Bryant, Sharapova). These types of extreme injuries are ‘scars’ from being at the top of your game for years. And I have certainly had a life rammed full of gymnastics and high level sporting activity, which is perhaps why I suffered an injury like this a bit younger than expected. Rotator cuff injuries/disease may also be genetic, my mum was a GB trampolinist and has unfortunately tore her rotator cuff tendon, had it surgically repaired and the re-tore it!
In the last 3 years I definitely had to modify my own training intensity and frequency due to the injury and pain. But I am still incredibly proud and completely inspired by what my body was still capable of with such damage. If my body had that level of skill with a completely useless rotator cuff, I really believe that I will be one of few exceptions that recovers to a higher level than before. In my last week of training I filmed lots of secret videos to share sporadically whilst I’m out of action – you would never know that I had a torn rotator cuff.
My Surgery, My Recovery
Thanks to the help of many good medical and physio friends I found the ‘best’ shoulder surgeon in the UK. He also happens to have an epic name – Professor Funk, me and my boyfriend Tom sang so many songs about my shoulder getting ‘funked’!
During my surgery I actually had 3 procedures instead of 1. The surgeon found my tear to be one of the largest he had ever seen in someone my age (that wasn’t a rugby player). I actually had my supraspinatus AND infraspinatus tendons repaired and a subacromial decompression – where they shave part of your shoulder blade down to avoid it rubbing against the new tendon.
As the nerve block started to wear off I could feel a new part of my body, one part at a time, feel so much pain. I spent the whole night scared and in tears. I completely underestimated what the pain would be like and I felt like the regular doses of morphine and codine didn’t even work.
The second day post op the pain meds made me so sick, I spent the afternoon cuddling the toilet whilst in pain and fear.
From there each day got a little better.
I am now 3 weeks post op and generally doing well but having plateaus in my recovery as expected. Some days I’m still in too much pain to leave the house. My post op achievements so far include:
- Showering and dressing by myself
- Cooking very messy meals
- Wrapping a Bendy Brand order with one hand and two feet
- Teaching a successful one armed private lesson to a 6 month pregnant student who travelled all the way from Austria (this was my proudest)
- Teaching a workshop just using my words and one of my best friends to demo
- I started to do my own hair – in a fishtail plait too!
The Next Step
Life will be very different for me for the next 6 months, and so will my goals. Right now my simple rehab can feel impossible. The aim at this stage of my recovery is to get as much passive range of movement back as I can. It’s so strange not being strong enough to simply lift your arm by yourself! Over the next 3 weeks I will slowly start to ween myself off my sling, and begin really subtle rotator cuff activation exercises. When I reach my 6 month recovery mark this is where I really have to work on shoulder exercises specific to pole, aerial and gymnastics to ensure my shoulder is capable of amazing things once again!
I’m going to spend my new found free time with loved ones, friends and family, working on developing my brand and writing my next book! Forced rest has enabled me to focus on the smaller, important things in life, and I don’t want to lose sight of this after my recovery. You will also see my sharing pictures of videos of my talented friends a lot more, which is something I should have been doing before the operation anyway!
Although I had to find replacements for my performing contracts, I will still be doing as many of my 2018 work commitments as I can with the help of my glamorous assistant Roxi Ziemann demoing and spotting for me around the world.
Roxi Ziemann, Late Night Tales
The best teachers are sometimes the people that once got it wrong, they can help you avoid the same situation they encountered. So if you have had an injury or niggle for over 6 months please get it checked out. Private scans are quick, efficient and surprisingly reasonably priced.
Also remember it is not ‘unprofessional’ to cancel or turn down work because you are injured. We need to stop feeling this way, your body is an amazing thing, if you don’t look after it who will?
Do pre-hab. This is the type of conditioning you do to prevent injury, rather than waiting until you have one. Every human body needs conditioning to do amazing things.
More research needs to be conducted on pole. We are very unique and pole is not similar to many other disciplines. We need to gather more information about the forces we put through our bodies and the common injuries that can be associated with pole. I’m going to try and get a kick start on this research too 😉
Thanks for taking the time to read,
My hot nurse, driver, hair stylist and chef: Broomey
My Physio: Matt Comfort
My friends who have supported me
My caring students
Kate P & Simon