Snap, Crackle, Pop: ACL Reconstruction and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Anyone who has spent more than a few months rolling on the mats will tell you that if you wake up one morning and you aren’t sore or in pain, you’ve probably died. The perseverance through pain and persistent injury is one of the things that makes us martial artists a special breed, we don’t sit on the side lines when we’re in pain; we tape it, spray it or lather it in cream and carry on rolling. That’s the philosophy I’d live by for my entire time practicing the martial arts, that was until I received an injury that couldn’t just be strapped or taped, that stopped my journey dead in its tracks; for now at least. In November 2013, whilst competing at only my second BJJ tournament I injured my knee so severely that I haven’t been able to train since that day. Nothing seemed off, no aches, no pains, no looming omen in the sky foretelling my impending doom. I’d gone through my usual pre-match psyche routine, stepped on the mats, bumped knuckles with my opponent and searched for my grips. After a gruelling stand up battle, the fight progressed as many competition BJJ matches do; my opponent pulled guard. Pulling guard is often reviled among BJJ practitioners as an easy way out, a sport centric solution to a combat art; but for me that guard pull changed everything. As soon as my opponent made contact I knew something had gone horribly wrong. My entire leg popped and cracked and I went straight to the ground screaming (A manly Conan-esque scream obviously) holding my knee. I knew I was injured badly enough that my tournament was over, I couldn’t straighten my knee and it felt more than a little uncomfortable. My first thought was that I may have broken it, though I still felt the need to joke that I was just being a baby. I was carried off to a physio, who determined that I had some possible ligament damage; but that once the swelling had subsided I’d be absolutely fine. My team mates came to show some mild sympathy combined with verbal abuse. After a lot of acupuncture and me (half) joking I’d be straight back on the mat on Monday, I was asked to see if I could stand. As soon as my foot touched the ground I felt my knee buckle, which was probably more painful than the initial injury. Due to my own pride and stubborn pig head-ishness, I wanted to walk out like a warrior; accepting help walking felt like weakness. What should have been a one minute walk to the car felt like a life time whilst I clutched my knee and slowly hobbled out the door; wincing with every painful buckle. Waking up the next morning, I had all but forgotten the injury had even happened; that was until I tried to stand. My knee gave out straight away; I knew my knee must have been more damaged than I first thought. A few sorry hours in A&E, a couple of X – Rays and numerous failed attempts to explain to a doctor what BJJ is (apparently wrestling my friends and choking them with my thighs isn’t clear but is weird); I was told that I hadn’t broken anything but that I had likely strained a ligament and that I would need to be reassessed once my considerable swelling had subsided. I was given a pair of crutches and a handful of ibuprofen and sent out the door with and told to come back in a week. A week passed and I still couldn’t put my foot on the floor, so after another few hours in A&E, a slightly disinterested doctor informed me that I had some mild tissue damage and that I’d be back to normal within a week or two. I couldn’t believe my luck, I’d be back on the mats faster than I thought; I couldn’t get rid of my crutches fast enough. The fact I had be told to see a joint specialist within a few days to be sure had seemed like just a formality. The day came and I proudly limped into the hospital without my crutches ready to hear I’d be back rolling in days or weeks. This excitement soon faded, when I was told I’d likely torn my Medial Collateral Ligament and that I’d need an MRI scan. The results happened to be even worse than I’d feared; I’d torn my Anterior Cruciate Ligament. It had felt like the death of my BJJ career and I definitely felt the 5 stages of grief mourning it. At first I refused to accept what the doctor had told me, I was convinced I didn’t need surgery; he was wrong and I’d be fine. That was until I tried to stand up and realised I was still hurt… denial pretty quickly became berserker rage. I hated everyone, my opponent, the doctors, literally every other person in the world who could even put a gi on and most of all myself. Then I tried to make a deal with some imaginary Jiu-Jitsu deity, I’d lay off the flying armbars (not that I could do them before my injury) for a while and just promise to roll light. Then when I realised Rickson Gracie wasn’t going to suddenly materialise in a misty haze and accept my deal, I decided the best course of action was to adopt my best miserable face and sit silently feeling sorry for myself. This lasted for a good long while, until I realised I still couldn’t really walk and if I didn’t want to starve to death I was going to have to actually speak to someone and ask for food. After a few days of doing my best impression of a teenager being told they can’t go out I realised that feeling sorry for myself was not going to get me out of this situation, I’d finally finished grieving and was now filled with determination. My mentality is probably best summed up by GSP after injuring his ACL; ‘I went from the fear of never fighting again to wanting to be able to fight next week… I needed to fix the problem…. NOW, RIGHT FUCKING NOW !’. I decided to accelerate the process myself, I opted to be treated at a hospital with a respected knee specialist and got the ball rolling. Finally seeing the specialist, I was hoping to be told I’d have surgery within weeks and be well on the road to recovery; I was disappointed again. My scan showed that I had not only torn my ACL but that I had sprained my MCL and fractured the honeycombing on both of the bones in my leg; resulting in bruising so severe that he wouldn’t consider operating for at least 6 weeks. I was devastated; I felt I had come so close to the surgery milestone only to have the finishing line moved at the last second. I wouldn't be beaten though, I put the 6 weeks of downtime to good use, spending hours a day in the gym working on knee rehabilitation and exercising in whatever ways I could. I might not have been able to roll but I was damned if I was going to lose all of my fitness and gain weight lying on the couch. Dragging yourself to the gym feels like the last thing you’ll ever want to do, but it kept me hungry and most importantly it kept me determined. The 6 weeks passed and I was finally given a surgery date. The surgeon told me of all the risks and complications but all I could think about was that I was about to take that first huge step towards finally being back on those mats like I had been craving for the last 3 months. The surgery passed without complication, but I was greeted with my leg in a fetching full length leg calliper when I woke up (which I kept reassuring myself essentially made me Batman, a la the Dark Knight Rises). My surgeon explained that whilst my surgery had been successful, my knee had been worse than the scan showed and that I had also severely torn my lateral meniscus; badly enough that I would have to wear this calliper restricting my flexion to less than 60 degrees for the next 7 weeks. Nothing phased me, not showering sat down with a bin liner rain coat on my leg, not having to figure out a way of awkwardly sitting on the toilet when you can’t bend your leg and not the hordes of children asking their parents ‘why the man had a robot leg ?’ (to be honest, that part was pretty cool). I ditched the crutches within days, I refused to accept I needed them; I could and would force myself to walk. Once the 7 weeks was over the glorious day came when I had the calliper removed; revealing the scrawny, scarred, half shaven monstrosity I now called my right leg. I was told that my graft seemed strong and that I could now begin phsyio properly but that I had a long road ahead before I could consider training again; more than likely to be a year. I wanted to shave at least 3 months from that. I am now 4 months out from surgery, and whilst flying inverted helicopter armbars could be a stretch, due to sheer force of will I am now at a stage where despite a few minor niggles, I can carry out normal daily activities relatively unaware of my injury. For anyone reading this who has or thinks they have gone through a severe injury; what my experience has taught me is to not accept the first diagnosis. You know your body better than anyone, if you think there is an injury then don’t accept being sent on your way. Get a second opinion, don’t be afraid to disagree with a doctor; your recovery depends on you making sure you get the best treatment. For anyone who is not long out of surgery, I strongly recommend you keep yourself immersed in your art as much as possible. Watch videos on YouTube as if you’re going for an internet black belt, read as much as you can (I cannot recommend GSP’s ‘Way of the Fight’ highly enough as both a great read, but also as a great motivator as someone who has gone through the same pain and overcome it to get back to the top). Watch your team mates train as often as possible; they’re the only people who are going to understand what it is you do and why you love it so much. Avoid negativity, people will try to tell you that you should quit, that it isn’t worth the risk, that you can’t make it past this; choke these people out, you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life. Most importantly of all remain focused and determined, no one is going to fix your knee for you, only you can do that by getting up off your arse and working for it; an injury isn’t an excuse, it’s a challenge that needs to be suplexed into the ground. Personally however, I have had to avoid my club like the plague in recent weeks, not for a lack of wanting to watch, but more to stop myself from becoming too enthusiastic and attempting something my knee is far, far too weak to attempt. Forced abstention has been pretty crucial for me just to be safe rather than sorry. Author: Liam McKenzie - Snap, Crackle, Pop: ACL Reconstruction and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
- Jacob Flockhart