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I Broke My Neck (kind of)

A while back I went a little overboard in the gym trying to keep up with some folks a lot younger than me. I had been training hard and was feeling my oats so when the coach said “today we are doing handstand pushups”, I was in.

A couple of reps in, I was out. I felt a pop in my neck and had a shooting pain from my neck to my left shoulder. At first I thought it was a pulled muscle, that’s where I was feeling the pain at least. After a few weeks of trying to treat it my self I finally booked an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon and had an x-ray.

The diagnosis? A clay shovelers fracture. This condition is where a muscular contraction fractures a bone in the neck or spine known as a spinous process. Its not life threatening, but its very painful. The name of the fracture comes from a profession of sorts, you guessed it, a Clay Shoveler. In days of yore, these guys were employed to dig ditches and holes. The repetitive throwing of large clods of dirt or clay overhead caused fractures in the spinous processes of the neck and upper back.

At first I felt kind of stupid for doing this in the first place. At 56, there’s no practical benefit to being able to stand on your head after all. What’s worse is I warn my patients not to do this kind of stuff all the time. Well, we all make mistakes now and again and now I had to fix it. In short, I had to take my own advice.

I’m like a lot of the people who come to see me. I’m older and I’m active. If I can help it, I don’t want to stop and rest for a couple of weeks with an injury because I don’t want to get out of the fitness habit. A couple of weeks off can quickly turn into a couple of months and next thing you know you’ve put on 20 pounds and your back is waking you up at night.

So, this brings me to the first of three points about recovering from injury:

Don’t stop moving.

It’s very tempting to use an injury as an excuse not to exercise and in some cases you do have to stop for a bit. In the vast majority of cases what you need, is to find something else to do. This prevents loss of condition, weight gain, depression and a host of other things you don’t want. This is especially true the older you are as its very easy to lose your gains and very hard to get them back.

For me the answer was running. I didn’t change my schedule I simply dusted off my running shoes and used the time slot where I usually exercise, to start walking and running. I used to like to run. I had that skill set already so it was easy to slide back into the routine. I’m not a great runner mind you, but I was using it as a way to stay fit until I could return to the gym.

Healing time for bones is between 6 and 12 weeks and maybe more depending on how bad the fracture is, and the underlying health of the patient, This brings me to my second point:

Give yourself time to heal.

Healing happens at the rate that it happens, you can’t speed it up, there’s no fast track. So, if you are recovering from an injury, set a realistic timeline to allow your body to repair and strengthen before getting back to your favorite sport or activity. Be patient, the gym isn’t going anywhere, there’s plenty of good tennis weather left this year.

Eventually you are going to recover. It might take a bit longer than your impatient self wants, but it will happen. At that point its time to think about getting back to the thing you enjoy the most whether its golf, weights or tennis. I took six weeks out running and walking daily before returning to the gym.

And this brings me to the final point in this article and that is:

Start Low and Go Slow

Its very tempting to jump right in and quickly ramp up to your prior level of activity. That’s what you’ve been dreaming about for the past few weeks and months after all. Once again, if you don’t want to end up back at square one you need to think strategically. Just like bones healing, bodies need time to adjust and recondition. The older you are, the more time you need. You can reach your goal, you just have to have a realistic timeline for getting there. When I returned to the gym I halved all my weights and reps, I started all the way back at 50%. I topped up my workouts with biking and running and over time I added more weight, more reps and more time in the gym. 

We teach best what we most need to learn.

So to summarize: If you are active, you will probably suffer and injury or two here and there. Its not the end of the world, it happens to all of us and its certainly not a reason to abandon your fitness goals or lifestyle. Unless you are advised otherwise, you should aim to stay active as you recover and you should establish a timeline for doing so. If you are older, you will have to be more patient. When you do return to your favorite activity, give yourself a long on ramp for the best chance at success.

I knew this stuff already because I teach it to people everyday. I really learned the lesson however when an injury forced me to put my own words into actions.

Paul Jones is a Physical Therapist with offices in Madisonville and Hammond. He loves helping people stay active and enjoy life at any age. If you have a question for Paul you can reach him at

paul jones

Paul Jones

Jones Physical Therapy

"We Help People Recover From Injuries Quickly And Completely Without The Use Of Medication, Shots Or Surgery So They Can Live The Active, Pain-Free Lives They Want And Deserve."

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