A Runner’s Knee Injury Opens Door to Alternative Healing

[The following is a guest post by Linda Tobia that chronicles her long, winding, and surprising road back from a knee injury.]

I ran sixteen miles today. It wasn’t particularly fast or effortless, but every time I run this far, it feels like a small victory. I am so grateful to be able to run. Eight years ago I developed a nagging pain on the outside of my knee that would not go away. I was ultimately diagnosed with iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS). The journey to heal my knee has been painfully slow, but brought with it insight and some powerful lessons about life.

When I was first injured I began with basic symptom treatment: icing, then over the counter anti-inflammatory medicine, followed by a doctor’s visit. My doctor’s advice, “You aren’t a candidate for surgery. Take anti-inflammatories. Rest. Maybe you should stop running altogether.”

Anti-inflammatories did reduce the inflammation while I was taking them but as soon as I stopped the pain returned. I started to look for other alternatives to traditional doctors. I asked my doctor for a referral to physical therapy, and on my own started massage therapy.

About six months after my initial injury, my massage therapist recommended seeing a chiropractor. I was very nervous about it given the narrow, negative view I had of this profession, but I was ready to try almost anything to be able to run again. Visiting the chiropractor was my first step toward opening the door of alternative medicine. After that, acupuncture and other alternative treatments did not seem outlandish.

Persistence turned out to be the key to my success. You learn something new from each practitioner you visit and that some doctors are better than others. I ended up seeing three physical therapists, four chiropractors, and two orthopedic surgeons. If I had given up on physical therapy or chiropractic treatment after my first experience, I would not be running today.

Persistence was also required to get to the root cause of my problem which turned out to be my low back. I have a couple of compressed discs. I’ve learned that sitting for long periods of time is the most aggravating activity, not running.

I also found that sharing my problem with others generated many great ideas and referrals; new perspectives gave me more alternatives to try and I found a great podiatrist, physical therapist, and chiropractor through personal referrals.

I’ve become skeptical of any practitioner who believes his “one” treatment will “cure” me. I believe it’s a combination of several therapies that have been so powerful in my success. The most successful treatments for my ITBS have been chiropractic care for my back, coupled with daily core strengthening and posture exercises, stretching and yoga, custom orthotics, supplements to support my joints, and improved running form. I continue to look for new options to support my ability to run. Most recently I’ve added myofascial release to my therapy regime. I’m seeing very good results. It seems to be the most effective way to relax my IT band.

Finally, the last lesson I want to share with you: it can require self-discipline, attention to detail, and a positive attitude to overcome a difficult injury. As runners, we have already developed these abilities. We rise before sunrise to get in a run before work. We set goals for ourselves to cover greater distances or to breakthrough to a PR. Through sheer bull-headed optimism, we can coax our bodies to run farther or faster than we previously thought possible. We can call on these same abilities to heal our injuries.

Addendum:
My journey to great running health continues to go down paths I didn’t expect. When I wrote the above article in 2009, I thought I had the perfect formula in place. I stayed open to new ideas, but I didn’t think I was going to need to tweak anything.

Well, I started having problems with a nodule on the instep of my foot, along the length of the plantar fascia. Running in my orthotics aggravated the nodule. When it first happened, I went back to my trusty podiatrist, who adjusted my orthotics and eventually gave me a cortisone shot. That worked for a while, but it flared up again a few months later. In frustration, I pulled out a pair of Vibram Five Fingers that I had purchased on a whim a couple of years before and I ran five minutes in them. I figured if I had to take a rest from my regular running, why not experiment with VFFs. While I rested my foot from regular running shoes, I started a very gradual build up with the VFFs. I liked the way it felt to run in them, and it just seemed like a good idea to use a more natural shoe. I want to run for the rest of my life, and I sensed that VFFs might be a worthy experiment in that quest.

Over the course of a year, I shifted a good portion of my running to VFFs and I’m doing the rest in neutral, cushioned, minimalist shoes. Right now, I’m in New Balance 101s for long trail runs and Newton’s for road running. I have stopped wearing orthotics and I changed my non-running footwear completely to shoes with hard soles, no arch support and a nice wide toe box. (My local shoe store loves me.) The nodule on the instep of my foot has shrunk to almost nothing. It never bothers me.

The experience with the VFFs just reinforces that I need to continue to be open to new ideas and try new things, while being careful to listen to my body and not throw away my tried and true approaches to healthy running.  Next, I’m thinking of going completely barefoot.  I’ll be the crazy lady you see on the trail without shoes.  Hopefully you’ll notice my joy in running, not just my lack of footwear.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Have you got a story of a long and winding path from running injury to health? If so, please share.
  • Ever find healing in an alternative therapy to which you were initially skeptical?