“As I lifted the large ice chest into the back of my truck, I felt an excruciating pain in my left shoulder; the grinding sound was almost as loud as the pain was intense.”
Brian’s (shoulder) story: Born and raised in the Midwest, Brian spent most of his life hunting small game such as pheasant and turkey. When he moved to Arizona, he was excited for the opportunity to engage in big game hunts, such as elk and deer. One of his goals was to hunt elk with a bow. His chance came when his name was drawn for a bull elk archery tag.
Brian made all the arrangements for the big hunt, loading his truck with everything he needed for the two-week camping/hunting trip. As he lifted the 150-gallon-capacity ice chest into the back of his truck, he felt an excruciating pain in his left shoulder. “The grinding sound was almost as loud as the pain was intense,” Brian recalls.
If you are a hunter (or if you live with one), you know what happened next… Brian went hunting. He told himself he could endure the pain long enough to make a shot and fill his tag. After two long weeks with no success and ongoing pain, he returned home.
Several weeks from the day he lifted that ice chest, Brian made an appointment to see orthopedic surgeon Joel Rohrbough, M.D. Dr. Rohrbough specializes in the surgical and non-surgical treatment of shoulder, knee and elbow injuries and conditions, and is part of the Sports Medicine Center at Northern Arizona Orthopaedics.
The physical exam and tests revealed Brian had a common shoulder condition in men who live an active lifestyle: AC Joint Arthritis. Brian had been slowly developing arthritis at the end of the collarbone, where it forms a joint with the rest of the shoulder blade, known as the AC joint. Although not as large a joint as the ball and socket joint of the shoulder, arthritis in the AC joint can be just as painful and limiting to an active lifestyle.
Brian had experienced mild pain and some symptoms before this hunting trip, but not as severe.
“I delayed getting my shoulder checked out because I figured I would be told to not use my shoulder, and I had waited six years to get drawn for elk,” Brain said. “I'm going to hunt!”
Dr. Rohrbough said Brian’s perspective is something he hears nearly every day in his practice.
“We live in a beautiful area, and folks want to be outdoors doing their thing and no one wants to have an injury slow them down,” Dr. Rohrbough said. “Unfortunately, many people delay getting their problems checked out, sometimes to their detriment. Remember, going to a specialist to get checked out isn’t a sign of weakness. A good specialist will partner with you in getting you back to what you love in the quickest, safest and most reliable way possible. A good specialist will tell you what you need to hear, but will also hear what you need to tell. And a good specialist will always treat surgery as a last resort.”
Brian’s shoulder problem was not an easy one. However, he was relieved when he learned that this type of shoulder arthritis is fixable and it doesn’t mean he has to give up his hunting or active lifestyle.
According to Dr. Rohrbough, “Many such cases will return to the pre-injury level of function after a decent rest and some medication. A smaller percentage will need surgery to get lasting relief, but surgery for this issue is a relatively simple arthroscopic procedure with a four-week recovery.”
After some aggressive rest for a few weeks, Brian was feeling pretty good, so he decided to start a home renovation project. Within minutes of pulling up the old carpet, Brian’s shoulder pain increased, but (like many of us would do) he continued pushing, pulling, crawling and lifting his way through the project.
As the weeks went on, the pain became so unbearable he was back in Dr. Rohrbough’s office where he was given a cortisone shot, a strong and safe treatment for arthritic joints when used correctly. This led to a drastic improvement in pain, which lasted for months. Brian was nearly pain-free as he continued his roles as a wildlife biologist, volunteer firefighter and avid outdoorsman.
Eventually, Brian’s active lifestyle and his AC joint arthritis refused to get along. Brian continued to press on and push through many months and multiple activities with substantial pain. Once again, it was the pain of shooting his bow that finally made him say enough was enough and surgery was scheduled.
The outpatient procedure was performed arthroscopically through three small incisions. Immediately after surgery, the pain in Brian’s shoulder was nearly gone. He wore a sling for two weeks and began gently lifting his shoulder. Two weeks after performing surgery, he started rehabilitation with a physical therapist at DeRosa Physical Therapy. Within four to six weeks, he eased back into most of his activities.
Today, Brian is continuing to hunt and work, and attend his kids’ sporting events, which include shooting their bows alongside their dad.
What to do with a shoulder injury
Not all shoulder injuries require surgery or immobilization. But the shoulder is complex, and waiting too long to be evaluated or continuing to push through pain can often make a simple problem worse. Rest the shoulder after an injury, but if you are still having pain after three or four weeks, consider going to a shoulder specialist. Avoid prolonged treatment, especially repetitive injections, without accurate diagnostic imaging such as an MRI. Remember, a visit with a specialist early can shorten overall recovery time. A good specialist gets most patients to improve without surgery and will be able to guide you to the most effective nonsurgical treatments, such as physical therapy or a home exercise program.
Is there a health topic you would like to know more about? Contact Starla S. Collins, health writer and life coach, at StarlaSCollins@gmail.com.