The Magazine

Old-Man Injuries

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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The acute pain in my right foot extends from the inside arch over the instep to my ankle. It's a sharp, intense twinge when I walk or just press the accelerator in my car. When I sit, it throbs. When I focus on it, I imagine that inside my shoe my foot is actually pulsating, cartoon-style.

I lie awake at night contemplating my agony. What is the source of this intense physical discomfort? I wonder if I have somehow suffered the dreaded lisfranc fracture--the latest in a long line of football injuries that no one has heard of until such time as the previously unknown malady brings down a dozen players--like the "high" ankle sprain from a couple years back or last year's "sports hernia." Indeed, Miami Dolphin running back Ronnie Brown was lost for the season owing to a lisfranc fracture. It happened when a 340-pound defensive lineman landed on his foot as he pushed off to make a cut.

I know his pain. But it's taken me weeks to figure out why.

Unexplained aches and pains have become more and more frequent occurrences for me over the past couple of years. My younger brother, Andy, who's 36, calls these "old man injuries." If you are male and over 30, chances are you know exactly what we're talking about.

There are two kinds of old-man injury. The first comes as a direct result of some activity--usually an activity that would not have caused pain to your younger self. Like golf. As a teenager, I used to walk 36 holes of golf in a day and feel nothing the next day. Now, I play 18 holes of cart golf and suffer for three days afterwards.

The second kind is more frustrating because the source of the pain is a mystery. You wake up one morning and find that your right pointer finger won't bend. How is that possible? I went to bed pain-free and woke up unable to hold a pen.

There are hybrid old-man injuries, too. Not long ago, I was on the first tee at South River Golf Club in Edgewater, Maryland, with Andy and a friend, Buzz. It was early morning, and we were doing the kind of pre-round stretching that we never had to do 20 years ago. As I twisted my torso back and forth, I let out a sudden yelp. It felt as if something had snapped in my lower back. The source of pain was clear: a recurrence of an injury that I'd suffered on an airplane ride the week before. All I'd done to cause the initial injury was sit on a plane for a few hours. When I stood up after we landed, my back was wrenched. I walked through the airport hunched over. I got a luggage cart to transport my carry-on bag, which contained one suit and a pair of shoes.

My golfing partners could identify. Buzz was still sore from straining his chest muscles during a prolonged attack of sneezing. Andy was recovering from a severe groin injury. He had been sitting at his desk working on his computer late one afternoon. As he swiveled to his left and prepared to stand, a bolt of pain shot up his leg. He had somehow pulled his groin turning in his chair. He couldn't walk.

So it's not just me. A friend was down for a week after straining his shoulder as he pulled the cord to start his lawnmower. A relative, we'll call him "Andy," was relegated to his sofa for three days after he strained his lower back standing up from a long reading session in his favorite room. A childhood friend recalls trying to figure out how he ended up on the floor of his shower. One moment he was casually scrubbing himself--"trying to reach a place with my washcloth that I can apparently no longer reach"--and the next he was on his back, shielding his eyes from the water and kicking like an overturned turtle. "I spent 20 minutes on the floor of the shower before I was able to whimper my way to the faucet handle and climb out."

I spoke to my wife the other day about my foot. She brainstormed with me about the cause of my pain. What had I done over the past couple of days that was out of the ordinary? Worn new shoes? A new workout? Any running?

Then it hit me.

Sure enough, my foot problem does have something in common with Ronnie Brown's season-ending injury. I do not have a lisfranc fracture, just a strained arch. But we both hurt ourselves in Florida.

His foot was crushed by a large football player. I took a walk on the beach.

STEPHEN F. HAYES