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Stopped by Boomeritis

For the 'no pain, no gain' generation, overuse injuries are starting to take their toll

For the 'no pain, no gain' generation, overuse injuries are starting to take their toll

September 30, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

Tim Younker was - is - the classic jock.

A three-sport letterman in high school more than 20 years ago, the Hancock man doesn't just embrace an active lifestyle. He squeezes every ounce of life from it.

In his 20s, he ran five to 10 miles daily at a sub-five minute per mile clip, a scorching pace indicative of a never-say-die attitude nurtured across three decades as an athlete on the trail, baseball diamond or basketball court.

But a month and a half ago, when his left knee was swollen to about the size of his thigh the day after a rough 15-mile bike ride with his wife, Younker was hit with the bill for pushing himself all these years.

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"I've always played through injuries. Because of my active lifestyle, it's easy to wake up with nagging aches and pains. I felt like, 'OK, I'll go through it,'" he says. "To rein that in is probably the biggest challenge I'll face."

At 41, Younker is one of countless baby boomers born between 1946 and '64 who are now running headlong into middle age and emerging on the other side with Boomeritis.

Half-jokingly coined by Philadelphia 76ers orthopaedic consultant Nicholas A. DiNubile, M.D., the term accounts for a growing number of sports related ailments derailing fitness regimens of men and women who are trying to stay fit later in life.

Tendinitis, tennis elbow and Achilles sprains, not to mention the arthritis and degenerative bone disease in Younker's knee, are forcing active adults to re-evaluate their methods and intensity of exercise.

Father Time is teaching a painful lesson to the 'no pain, no gain' generation.

"It's the overuse injuries, just repetitive boom-boom-boom overloading of muscles, tendons. They may be doing the exact same routine as 10 years before," says DiNubile, who has a practice in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown, Pa. "The routine might not be the problem. It's that they're a different person. You can't treat the body the same way at 50 as at 20. It doesn't mean you can't work out. You just have to be smarter about it."

Not strictly a baby boomer phenomenon, short-circuiting muscles and joints are nonetheless popping up in droves for the first time in the over 40 set as boomers attempt to remain active on an aging frame.

And diagnosing who is most likely to join the limping wounded isn't as easy as picking everyday exercisers out of a lineup at the gym. With one-third of the adult population sedentary, underuse of joints and muscles can cause similar problems.

Then there are the weekend warriors, men and women stuck behind a desk all week who decide to cram all physical exertion into a two-day period.

"Everyone's trying to do the right thing. Problem is, people are working long hours so they try to stay in shape on Saturday and Sunday," says Bobbie Rothen, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon at the Center for Joint Surgery at Robinwood Medical Center.

"And the classic (situation) is you play hard Saturday and Sunday and you spend Monday to Thursday recovering. And then you do it again."

Like gray hair and wrinkles, the body's weak links developed over time, and are to be expected among members of a society living healthier, more active, longer lives.

Consequently, tweaking a hamstring prevents boomers from bouncing right back into a training routine, a nasty irony for individuals eager to enjoy old age by staying in shape.

"It's a double-edged sword," DiNubile agrees. "You have to be active and from time to time you are going to find these weak links and you have to be smart enough to either toughen the weak links, work around them or accept them and find other things to do."

After X-rays and an MRI to diagnose his knee injury, Younker began a rigorous rehabilitation program under the supervision of physical therapist Laura Blair.

He was surprised at how much effort and pain accompanied the relatively simple stretching and leg strengthening exercises.

Rothen routinely encounters patients ignorant about why their bodies seem to be abandoning them overnight. Still, she doesn't rush to encourage them to give up their favorite activities; in time, their bodies will likely make that argument via a series of painful twinges and throbs.

Instead she preaches moderation and cross-training, a theory adopted by many physicians.

"I think we bring a lot of it on ourselves, I really do," DiNubile says. "That fix-me-itis mindset, 'I'll break it and you'll fix it. I'll break it again and you'll fix it again.' ... There comes a point where you can't keep doing it."

Armed with eight or nine routines, Younker now does his rehab on his own time, a 20 minute to hour-long regimen he is to keep up until the pain becomes bearable.

Tempting as it might be to think exercise and diligent rehab will cure all ills, Hagerstown doctor of osteopathy Daniel J. Sullivan, associate director of rehabilitation services for Washington County Health System, cautions there is no panacea.

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