Running from Pain

I’m a runner. I have been a serious runner for almost ten years. I am also blessed to have been relatively injury free. However, there was one occasion several years ago when I started having pain in my hip. The pain would extend to my back and down my leg. Wearing shoes with any kind of heel hurt. Even when I sat at a desk hurt, I would hurt.  I was clueless as to what was going on. I stopped running for a couple of weeks to see if it helped, but the pain just got worse. I (reluctantly) went to the doctor. After examining my range of motion and subsequent level of pain, he said I had all of the signs of arthritis, but I was too young (27 at the time) to have arthritis. If you’ve ever known a runner, then you understand the whirl of thoughts that go through his or her head. Usually these thoughts begin with “Oh no! I’ll never be able to run again!” They generally get more dramatic from there.


The doc took an X-ray; the only way to know for certain whether I had signs of arthritis. Waiting for the x-ray took an eternity, and I just sat there thinking about whether I really wanted to take up swimming or not (I was in the despair phase). The doctor came back and said my bones and joints look great. Everything looked great; that did not explain the horrible pain.


Another week went by. The beginning of the day was always better, but by the end of the day, I could barely stand because the pain was so bad. It was centralized on my hip and felt like it was the joint and the muscles were yelling at me in protest to doing anything. I tried icing. I tried heating. I hate taking pills for anything, but the only thing that brought some relief was Advil (generic: Ibuprofen). But that only masked the truth that I did not want to face. I was having chronic pain, and it might be arthritis.


My doctor suggested that I see a physical therapist. I had worked with a PT before, so he gave me the go to see her again. I recounted my tragic story of how my time as a runner had ended while in my twenties (I was in the acceptance phase). My PT took some notes and said, “Heather, stand up for me. Look in the mirror. Here is your left hip bone and here is your right hip bone.” They were completely off kilter. How did I not notice this before? She asked if I had had a fall. I told her that I tripped on a curb several weeks ago. It jostled me pretty badly, but I shook it off and was able to run back home without a problem. The pain came on gradually so I did not associate it with that incident. That fall had apparently knocked my hips out of alignment, and my muscles had been painfully compensating ever since.


What does this have to do with bioethics? Actually, it has to do with taking pain medicine. Some runners I know take an ibuprofen before every long run. Some athletes take them after. Some people take two every day just to feel better. The question is, have we become overly reliant on pills, particularly over-the-counter prescription pain medicines. A recent BBC News article discussed the problems with people overdoing the over-the-counter pain meds. Without going into too much analysis of our culture’s obsession with medicines, several points from the article are worth noting:


  1. Ibuprofen has more side effects than people realize. Personally, I know of a guy who had blood pressure issues due to taking ibuprofen. His blood pressure went down once he stopped taking them.
  2. Ibuprofen has become a kind of “medical crutch.” This is both to cut back on medical costs and as a band-aid for patients who do not want to deal with the actual causes (For example: Many issues with joint pain can be alleviated from diet, weight loss, and exercise).
  3. One pain management consultant interviewed in the article says that he believes ibuprofen (as well as aspirin) would likely not get an over-the-counter license today.
  4. Pain killers may mask what the body is trying to tell you.


After my physical therapist had found the culprit, I went through several weeks of intensive physical therapy, and was back to running pain free in no time. I could have easily done what many people I know do, take some Advil, go on the run anyway, and avoid the doctor. Pain medicines do have a place, but the pain should not be ignored. The pain is what told me that something was wrong, and had I not responded to it (albeit reluctantly), then I could have caused much worse, and much more permanent damage.

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