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On Tourette’s Syndrome, Rib Injuries, Tics, Air Quality, and Human Canaries

ribcageOn October 18  of 2010 I pronounced myself cured of Tourette’s Syndrome and tried to throw myself a parade, but the City would not close down Main Street. So I built a statue of myself  statue and put it in the park, but some vandals decorated it with some poorly constructed sentence fragments. Tsk.

The next two months were quite strange, not entirely in a good way. The tics tried to give me the bum’s rush, based on events that I couldn’t control.

Between November and December I spent the better part of three months coughing my guts out with one of the worst illnesses I’ve ever had. It was business as usual in Salt Lake City. We have an inversion that sets in and wrecks the air quality until a storm blows it out. If you’ve ever spent much time in Boulder, it’s similar. We’re just a bunch of canaries.

When I was better I noticed that one of my ribs was really sore, the lowest rib on the right side. Not only that, I could grab it and wiggle it around! It was like the piece that attaches to the sternum was a stretched rubber band that had forgotten what shape it was supposed to hold.

It hurt to breathe, twist, sit, stand, lie down, or do much of anything. I still had my full range of motion, but when I would exercise everything would feel inflamed across my back. Movements would test well (if you don’t know what I mean by testing, check out Gym Movement) , but weren’t providing any relief. So I backed off of my strength training, even though my numbers continued to rise.

Where this got really interesting was when my tics suddenly started poking their ugly heads up again. Movements–specifically breathing–were the beginning of my ability to learn how to manage, and then override the psychogenic urges to have tics. And now I could not breath normally and any movement I could perform was impaired by this rib thingy.

Tic tic tic tic tic…

I got a CT scan and got some X rays just to try and rule anything truly horrific out. Various specialists said, respectively:

  • Just take more ibuprofen
  • Your rib is dislocated
  • You have a piece of costal cartilage that has torn off the rib and is rubbing against your organs
  • You’re never going to be able to lift heavy again
  • We need to take some of your blood and inject it back into the rib area
  • Wow, you have really broad shoulders

I sat there thinking that they all made far too much money to not provide any answers, but I was the one making the appointments and paying them, so I couldn’t scold them too badly.

It was also very depressing to hear them each say that they had seen broken ribs that season, just due to coughing from the crappy air. Again, canaries.

The pain persisted and the tics got worse. So I went back to the gym, because exercise didn’t really make it worse, it just didn’t make it better. My numbers continued to go up and that became the thing I could control. A way to feel like myself.

Luckily, I have smart friends. After a conversation with Frankie Faires, I went to a very depressing medical supply store that I swear only had one lightbulb in it. Frankie is a martial artist and unsurprisingly, rib injuries seem to be endemic in the grappling world. If you have not yet read his article “Pain Makes You Stupid,” I think it’s worth your time.

On his suggestion, I bought a rib belt and start to wear it for about 23 hours a day. It’s kind of like a giant ace bandage with Velcro. I can cinch it around my ribcage and it holds things in place while I move.I wore it for a week without doing any exercise. Nothing changed, except that I was spending my time on desk with a sexy man girdle under my shirt.

And the tics kept coming, which I associate to how poorly (and little) I was moving.

After  a week I went back to the gym, started performing movements that tested well, and, can you guess what happened? Suddenly I was fine. I could breathe, I could twist, I could sit, stand and walk–I was alive again. In about four days the pain went from a 9 down to a 2. So did the urges to have tics. A couple of days after that I was completely reset to my default setting of Extreme Awesomeness.

Pain vs damage

My theory on this is that during the coughing fit I created so much instability in my rib cage that it couldn’t knit back together. Every breath moved things out of alignment. Every rep amplified the effect. My strength gains showed that I was still benefiting from the exercises, but it no longer felt good to do so.

A lot of the weird pains and tweaks that I help people with at the gym can be resolved quickly because they’re just annoying little neurological pinches. It’s simply a matter of finding the right movement and working it. Moving from that type of pain into actual mechanical damage–as in, a piece of your cartilage is moving around, or you have a dislocated rib–can change the game a bit.

The most educational part of this for me was to see, once again, that simply performing the right movements was what made me feel 100% better. Since I was actually damaged I needed that bit of additional buttressing from the rib brace, but once that was in place it just came back down to tests and movements.

Should any of this matter to you? Maybe, if you’re in pain. What I know is that it hurt, and now it doesn’t, and the doctors were less than helpful in terms of affecting an acceptable outcome. Do I care why it works? I do not. I care that I can move well again, smile, and do what I want to. That’s what I care about, and that’s typically how people in pain seem to feel.

I’d like to leave you with a quick quote from Adam Glass:

  • Pain can be a great instructor, but if pain does not result in a change in behavior, it is the fault of the student

If I had quit trying based on the information provided by well-paid experts, I’d still be hurt today. Instead, I am back hitting more PRs than ever, and moving forward. Always.

If you are in pain, keep asking questions. Keep testing things out. And if any doctor tells you that the life you planned on having is no more, use their words a springboard into further study. Keep asking, keep digging, and don’t accept that nothing can be done.

If you’d like to know more about how I have dealt with Tourette’s Syndrome, please subscribe to the newsletter and you’ll get a 20 minute video that I filmed as an introduction.



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Todd March 3, 2011, 7:18 am

    I’m glad that you’re feeling better, big guy. Rib injuries blow! Remember, those medical professionals are “practicing” medicine… they don’t have it perfected. It doesn’t help that the body is such a complex piece of machinery that no mechanic can possibly know all.

    Hey, have you been watching the guy with Tourette’s on American Idol? I’m not a fan of the show, but the wife and kids are. Anyway, dude is the most entertaining of the lot.

    • Josh Hanagarne March 3, 2011, 11:27 am

      Todd, the only episode I have watched was the one he auditioned in. He had a great voice.

      Have you ever had a rib injury? How did you deal with it, if so?

  • Pauline March 7, 2011, 9:53 am

    Excellent post. Yes, we all must be our own advocate for finding out what makes it hurt less. “thinking that they all made far too much money to not provide any answers” is so true. Yes, they are all “practicing” medicine, but also keep in mind that there is always somebody who graduated at the bottom of the class, and we don’t know if that’s the one who is talking to us!