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The Plank And The World Cup: Recovering from A Sports-Related Back Injury (Part III)

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The end of June and first part of July became an exceptionally busy time at our house, juggling the final stretch of Physical Therapy for our son while trying to watch every second of the soccer World Cup coverage! Lucky for us, the Physical Therapy gym is well equipped with TV monitors, all tuned in to sports! Physical therapy

Pitch perfect

As we ended the final phase of the journey, I attended each PT just holding my breath that my son wouldn't suffer a setback.  He had come so far since those dark days in late February. The endless hours of sitting and waiting for his L-3 vertebrae to heal seem like eons ago. Two months in and around physical therapy made the late spring days slip by rather quickly. Now, with the last sessions and the final check-up with the doctor in our sights, the days were dragging again. I am glad we had Team USA to keep us focused!

With three sessions left, my son seemed to be doing well. He was stable in all the exercises and he seemed to be pushing to the limits. The therapists were enthusiastic and told him he would be ready for his final test. Test? Wait. School has been over for a month. No more tests. But, yes, they said, there would be a final exam, with his scores sent to the orthopedic surgeon, who would decide whether to release him from the program. I got nervous. My son only heard that he was fine and this would all be over soon.

Penalty! Hand ball.

My newly-minted 14-year-old celebrated his birthday and approaching release from PT by going to a friend's house for an extended game of trampoline dodge ball and seeing who could bounce the highest.  It was not an activity that the medical team had approved, of course, but I figured that he was nearly at the finish line, and I couldn't simply bubble wrap the kid.

Turns out it was not such a wise decision: when he limps in to see the physical therapy team, he is unable to perform any core exercises for the pain in his upper back (thoracic). The team responds by manipulating muscles, cracking things, icing things and giving him a new exercise routine to ease the pain in his mid-upper back (as opposed to the lumbar region in his lower back where the fracture occurred). At this point, I am about ready to hoist a white flag and catch a plane to Rio to immerse myself in all things beach and soccer.  All of this, by the way, takes place on a Thursday, with  the "final exam" set for just five short days later on Tuesday.

It ends up being a long weekend. filled with ice, exercises (both old and new), all the while watching match after match of World Cup coverage.


As fate woud have it, the PT final exam coincided with the USA versus Germany fixture, the one that would decide whether the United States would advance to the Round of 16.  It turns out each match was epic, with defensive game plans executed to perfection by both Team USA and the Physical Therapy team. The PT final consisted of over an hour of crunches with weights and lunges, building up to "Bird Dogs" (5 lb weights attached to each wrist and ankle, raising opposite arms and legs straight out for a 30 second holdUSMNT's goalie Tim Howard, alternating each, for a total of 5 minutes).

The atmosphere mounted in the gym, as Tim Howard blocked shot and after shot. People were cheering for Team USA as well as my son. He was down to the final physical challenge on the test, the dreaded plank! For those of you who don't know what a plank is, it an exercise in which, with all of your weight on your forearms and on your toes, you lower your "core" to make a tabletop. The position fires up and engages the core muscles in your abdomen as well as the lower back. A minute in this position can seem like a long time. Two minutes can be an eternity. Three minutes? Well,  many people cannot manage to hold the pose that long, and after five minutes,  you feel like you've run a marathon. 

The first part of the test was a plank variation - center, left, center, right and center - with a one-minute hold in each pose. After a small break, it was time for a solid 5-minute hold, an exercise so brutal it had to have been invented by a sadistic commandant at a P.O.W. camp to torture information out of prisoners. (If you don't believe me, just try it, and see how long you can hold it!).

Tim Howard and Team USA were hanging on against the Germans, and my kid's core muscles were on fire. A circle of trainers and patients formed around my son. The sweat was pouring off his face. The trainer was yelling encouragement. He got down on the floor at the three-minute mark, and I joined in at the four-minute mark for the final 60 second push! The buzzer went off and we all fell to the floor! The exhaustion of the final exercise of the final session of the final week settled over all of us. We waited for Jason, our physical therapist, to mark up the final grade sheet of the exam!  Hurray! A 38 out of 40! We thanked our team profusely and headed home. But thanks to a similarly monumental effort, Team USA, while it wasn't able to defeat the eventual World Cup champion Germany, was not sent packing, and, aWoman preforming the Plank exercisefter celebrating briefly, started getting ready for its Round of 16 game against Belgium. We celebrated and waited for the doctor's appointment two days later!

A new routine

A quick assessment by the doctor and acknowledgement of a near perfect Physical Therapy score earned my son clearance to go back to his usual daily routine. The only restrictions were that he was not to do any squats, dead lifts or power lifts until he had finished growing (fine by me, thank you!)  The doctor emphasized that continuing with the core exercises would be key to his overall eventual success in sports, and for an active adult life. His exact words were to make the exercises, "A daily routine; just like brushing your teeth." (Okay, I thought.  Let's be honest, at 14 a mom just prays her son brushes his teeth every day!) The message was heard loud and clear.

So now, after 4 ½ months, my son and our family were released to go back to living our normal life, or perhaps more accurately, a new normal including crunches and planks every day; no exceptions.


After I called my husband, immediate family and close friends with the good news, the very next call I made was to his football position skills coach. He had been kind to check in on my son during his absence from skills practice. I told him the good news that the release was in hand. Somehow, school and practice were starting in less than 6 weeks. He will have to work hard to catch up to his group and be as ready as possible. If he uses the same grit and determination that he just used to get through that PT final exam, then watch out: my kid is BACK!

Other blogs in this series

If Your Teen Has Back Pain That Won't Go Away, See A Doctor!

Back in Action, If Not In The Game: A Halftime Report On A Teenager's Recovery From A Stress Fracture Of His Spine