"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

One woman’s journey from being a klutz to finding balance in her life

By on August 28, 2018 in Articles with 0 Comments

Susan Sampson is determined that by working out, such as on her exercise ball, she can avoid the falling fate. Photo by Jerry Horn

By Susan Sampson

Visualize a 71-year-old sturdy woman dressed in a baggy T-shirt and yoga pants, sprawled face down over a fat purple exercise ball. Her arms are extended sideways like Peter Pan’s when he’s flying, or forward like Superman’s when he’s soaring faster than a speeding bullet.

That would be me.

I’m working to gain some literal balance in my life, like the ability to stand on one foot at a time or to walk through the kitchen without lurching into the corner of the dining table and bruising my thighs.

Some people are born that graceful, but not I. I can’t slow dance because I feel like my partner is pushing me over backwards. When step aerobic classes were all the rage, I had to work out in the back row because I was always out of sync, confusing the other steppers.

Now that I am legally old, my clumsiness is serious business. Old ladies fall down and break their hips. That happened to my mother and to my grandmother before her, although each was too demented to remember how she’d done it.

I’d still be relying on nice walks around my neighborhood to keep fit if I hadn’t started hurting.

That led me to a vast array of data of how muscles can go wrong and leave old ladies susceptible to falling. (More susceptible, I should say. All of our reflexes slow down with age so we can’t catch ourselves in time when we start to fall over. We need to be sure our bifocals have a new prescription. We need to retire our high-heeled shoes in favor of sneakers. I have at least one pair that sparkles, for dressy occasions. )

I hurt around my left shoulder blade. The pain wasn’t acute, but was relentless. My excellent medical team first made sure I wasn’t having a heart attack. The symptoms of myocardial infarction in women can be weird like that.

An MRI ruled out any pinched nerves coming from my spine. The pain abated when I did physical labor, so that ruled out any “rocks in there,” the doctors explained. Growths don’t relax with exercise; this was all about muscles.

My physical therapist discovered my muscle tone was poor. I hadn’t noticed being weak. He put me to work pulling on resistance bands, lifting my head with my neck, flying on that exercise ball for strength, and stretching to cool down.

As I looked around the physical therapy gym, I could see a good percentage of old ladies there.

When the pain didn’t abate, my physiatrist (expert in function) sent me to a chiropractor who didn’t manipulate my spine; it wasn’t crooked. Instead, he provided trigger point muscle therapy.

I was leery about believing in “trigger points.” I didn’t want “woo-woo” treatment of my auras or my bad karma or treatment based on anything other than science.

A friend who is an athlete insisted that I read The Trigger Point Workbook. Athletes like him always know the latest and best in sports medicine. (The notable researcher in trigger point therapy was Janet Travell, M.D. who was the White House physician in the 1960s.)

A trigger point is a band of microscopic muscle tissue that contracts but does not relax again, changing the mineral supply, oxygen supply and electrical conductivity of nearby nerves, sending a message of pain. Therapy consists of pushing down hard on the trigger point to compel it to relax.

The therapist found trigger points from the base of my skull all the way down my back. When he pressed the trigger points, my muscles leapt, and sometimes I yelped. I felt like a frog connected to electricity in a high-school science experiment.

He was also the therapist who asked me if I felt off-balance. I denied it, so he told me to balance on one foot. I couldn’t stay upright for even a few seconds without tipping. No, I hadn’t been aware of that before, either.

And he’s the one who detected the reason for my increasing imbalance and pain. In one of my clumsy moves 16 years ago, while I was hiking, I stepped on a slick wooden step and fell over backwards. The fall drove the head of my camera tripod into my ribs on the lower right rib cage. Typically of the time, I was treated only with pain pills.

There was more I didn’t realize.

I didn’t know that the soft tissue in my rib cage had healed “as hard as old leather,” to quote my therapist. The muscles in my right side quit doing their work, resulting in an overwork injury on my left side. He added aerobics, balancing exercises, and more stretching to my daily home PT regimen.

He warned me when the trigger points were released, I was likely to discover I hurt in other muscles as my back recovered its bilateral symmetry.

That’s where I am now. I’ve been referred to a medical massage therapist who works out the hardness in my muscles, particularly on the levator scapulae that helps move the shoulder blade. “No offense, but I feel decades of tension in there,” she says.

My son asks, “How did you get so tense?”

I figured it was related to the whole career I worked as a trial lawyer, physically tense in the courtroom, ready to rise to state my next objection. “No,” he says, “It was probably your trying to bring up my brother.”

“Relax!” my therapist commands. I’m not good at “Relax!” She adds more stretches and moist heat to my daily home treatment.

So far, we are making progress. I love my new strength and flexibility. I’m working for biceps like Rosie the Riveter’s and legs as powerful as Tina Turner’s. However, my six-pack abs still look enhanced by a bag of Cheetos. Nobody said this would be easy.

My rowing machine monitors calories burned, and my quarter hour on the machine burns 45 calories — worth about one half of a cookie.

But I keep at it. This old lady is not going to fall down.

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