The Trainer Onda Sligh by Dave Wood

Published on January 15th, 2014 | by Y. I. Otter

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Onda Sligh by Dave Wood

Chronic Pain and Roller Derby

Roller derby can be a pain in the ass. And hips. And knees, ankles, rotator cuffs and just about every other imaginable part of the body. Few people leave derby without some sort of “souvenir” from their days of being part of this sport. Along with the visible injuries and handicaps skaters often endure, there is another type of pain that part of the derby world experiences: chronic pain.

Chronic pain, as defined by WebMD and Wikipedia, is “Ongoing pain that lasts more than 6 months” (although the medical world in some areas has pushed that to 12 months for it to fall under this condition). Chronic pain comes in a veritable “rainbow” (insert tongue firmly into cheek) of varieties, with the most common forms including migraines, tendonitis, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. The difference between chronic pain disorder(s) and many other injuries is the fact that they are not visible. You can’t ‘see’ a migraine, or spinal stenosis, or fibromyalgia. Because of that, the medical field is JUST starting to get their shit together about how to deal with these real issues that affect millions of people. Including me.

In September of 2012 I went to the ER for what seemed to be a pretty bad case of the flu and pneumonia, with one of the presenting symptoms being extreme pain. I was hospitalized for several days and although I was released after the the respiratory portion cleared up, the pain worsened, to the point where one day I couldn’t get out of bed and was re-hospitalized. Since then, I’ve had dozens of doctors appointments, myriad tests, and surgery on my upper spine (which fixed some neurological and spinal problems), but I am still in pain daily.

I’m sharing this brief overview as an example, because I imagine there are other people who, although in pain, still skate. Chronic pain can be debilitating, but so can giving up something that’s such a huge part of who you are. I’m not ready to hang up my stripes, skates, and whistle. So I’ve spent the past year reading a lot, making a lot of mistakes in managing my pain, and observing the ways that this community can help (and sometimes not help) their leaguemates who suffer from this frustrating condition.

I’m not going delve into how to find out if you have a pain disorder because I’m not a doctor (nor do I play one on TV). If you think you may have a pain disorder, see a doctor, talk to them about it and go from there. Below are some tips and things to think about. Things that both the person with the pain, and the league they belong to can do to support someone dealing with it. I’ll still be learning along with you, because I have a feeling that this is pretty uncharted territory for a lot of us.

TO THE PERSON WITH SOME TYPE OF CHRONIC PAIN DISORDER

  • Your pain is YOUR responsibility. You are ultimately the one choosing. Choosing to try out for the travel team. Choosing to apply for a tournament. Choosing to participate in a drill, or an after party. No one is making you do these things. Saying “Well I HAD to…”? No. You didn’t. There may have been consequences which were undesirable to you, had you not participated (not making the travel team or being left off the roster for a bout), but using the words “I had to” is not taking responsibility for your own decisions and your own health.
  • It’s normal to not want to discuss your pain, but hiding it does you and your league a disservice. Pain is a very personal thing and not the most comfortable thing to talk about, especially when you fear that acknowledging it and sharing it with your league members will negatively affect how you’re seen within your league (which I’ll address in the league portion), but keeping it a complete secret creates a huge chasm in communication, which opens up the floodgates for assumptions, incorrect interpretations and sometimes decisions that may not be in your or the league’s best interest, not only from a “feels” standpoint, but from safety standpoint. Plus, pain is isolating, yo’! Anyone who has had to sit out because of an injury knows how much it sucks to have limitations. When you’re in a place where your limitations are constantly changing, it’s frustrating as hell and emotionally stressful. Having someone to talk to about this within the derby community helps you on those days where you’re not so great at coping with a limitation.Speaking of…
  • Not being able to participate in something doesn’t mean you’re “not trying hard enough” or “being a wimp about it” or “letting your team down.” It means that your body is essentially telling you “Nope. Not right now. In some cases physical activity is good for chronic pain, but everyone’s ‘pain litmus’ is different. There are times you can push your limits, but sacrificing to the point of your own safety and the safety of those around you is dangerous. It doesn’t prove that you *really* love your team and are willing to do anything for them. Loving your team sometimes means stepping down when you know your body just won’t be up for the incredibly physical task that is Roller Derby. (This is another reason why communication, especially with coaches, trainers, head officials and others who often lead the physical portions of the sport is important).
  • When you can’t skate, do your best not to disappear (Remember! Isolation: bad). Your league needs you for more than just your skating abilities! Is there a committee you can help with, an NSO job you’ve always wanted to learn, or if you’re having a really rough pain patch, even some admin work that needs doing? Those unsung heroes aren’t called heroes for nothing.
  • Realize that it will not always be easy, even when there is support. People WILL ask how you’re doing to the point where it gets annoying. People will sometimes assume you can’t do something that you can. People will offer sympathy when they mean to offer empathy. Communicate your needs, and do you best to remind yourself that, in most cases, your leaguemates are trying to support you the best way they know how.

FOR LEAGUES/LEAGUE LEADERSHIP THAT HAVE SKATERS/OFFICIALS WITH CPD

  • Educate yourself/your league. If you have a deaf person, or someone with speech problems, or any other physical barrier, you would most likely help support that person. The same goes for Chronic Pain sufferers. There are books, articles and papers written on the topic of CPD. It is a frustrating and, again, extremely misunderstood/under-researched physical condition. Making the effort to obtain knowledge about the subject not only helps the league better understand, it makes the person with CPD feel supported.
  • You need to communicate just as much as the person with CPD needs to communicate with you. If you have concerns about someone’s ability to perform in a scrimmage, bout or drill, talk to them about it. It’s their body that is going through the pain. Explain your concerns and then listen to what they say. This is a place where assumptions can be especially toxic. Not rostering or staffing someone because you’re concerned that they can’t do their job, and not telling them that’s the reason, is not only unfair, it’s unprofessional. You are making an assumption based on information you don’t have. Nothing good can come of this.
  • Don’t make exceptions or give special treatment to people with CPD. It has the potential to created animosity within the league, and often puts everyone in an uncomfortable situation.
  • Don’t guilt people into performing beyond what they are capable of. Remember what I said above about loving your team doesn’t mean sacrificing your health? Don’t put someone in that position. It’s an extremely manipulative and an abuse of influence. If someone on your team had a concussion and you indicated verbally *or* non-verbally “C’mon! Power through it! Do it for the team!”, you would sound like a huge asshole who cared more about winning then about the health of your fellow teammates. Most people with CPD will give everything they have when they have it.
  • When they can’t skate, don’t forget about them. Some periods of pain last for a few hours, or a few days. Some last for a few weeks. It’s okay to check in when you haven’t seen “so-and-so” at practice for awhile. If they can’t be a part of things, make sure they are kept in the loop. Stop over to visit them, ask them if they would like to help with something that is not physically taxing. (Remember! Isolation = bad!)
  • It’s OK to talk about your pain with a person who has CPD. Everyone’s pain is their own. When you wade beyond acknowledging that someone is in pain and into the waters of thinking “I can’t talk about how my knee hurts when you’re going through this!” Yes. Yes you can. In fact, we wish you WOULD talk to us more when you feel pain. It gives us an opportunity to be the listener, the shoulder to lean on, the person who can do the comforting.
  • Some people think Chronic Pain doesn’t exist. They might see you as “That person who always has to drop out for SOMETHING.” They might think you are ‘attention seeking’ or ‘making a big deal out of nothing’. I have dealt firsthand with these people, both in the medical field and in roller derby. It’s frustrating, hurtful. and it just plain sucks. When I think too long about these situations, I try to tell myself this:
    1. Those people are usually operating out of a place of ignorance. I can give them supporting evidence, but if they choose to continue to be willfully ignorant, that’s their problem, not mine.
    2. Much of how people view you has very little to do with you. People react to others based on their own upbringing/thoughts/belief systems, and a myriad of other things.

I hope that some of this has been helpful. If you want some recommended reading on the topic: please email me.

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Y. I. Otter started her roller derby career in late 2009, showing up to wrangle a bout and inadvertently wearing ALL of the colors that one of the teams was sporting. Her relationship with roller derby has been about the same since then. When she's not donning a whistle, skates, and a ref jersey for the Bay Area Derby Girls, writing about roller derby, or taking pictures of roller derby, she is can be found posting pictures of her cats on facebook, cornering unsuspecting victims and showing them the 821 pictures of her cats on her phone. Telling stories about her cats that approximately .003% of people find entertaining, inhaling ice cream sandwiches, swearing, telling inappropriate jokes, and being an all-around spaz. She hopes to publish a book some day. She also secretly hopes for the opportunity to punch a mime. *DISCLAIMER* As with all other sites, the opinions she posts on here are her own, unless directly specified. They do not reflect opinions of the Bay Area Derby Girls, WFTDA, or any other entity besides herself And sometimes her cats, when they are not busy being jerks.

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About the Author

Y. I. Otter started her roller derby career in late 2009, showing up to wrangle a bout and inadvertently wearing ALL of the colors that one of the teams was sporting. Her relationship with roller derby has been about the same since then. When she's not donning a whistle, skates, and a ref jersey for the Bay Area Derby Girls, writing about roller derby, or taking pictures of roller derby, she is can be found posting pictures of her cats on facebook, cornering unsuspecting victims and showing them the 821 pictures of her cats on her phone. Telling stories about her cats that approximately .003% of people find entertaining, inhaling ice cream sandwiches, swearing, telling inappropriate jokes, and being an all-around spaz. She hopes to publish a book some day. She also secretly hopes for the opportunity to punch a mime. *DISCLAIMER* As with all other sites, the opinions she posts on here are her own, unless directly specified. They do not reflect opinions of the Bay Area Derby Girls, WFTDA, or any other entity besides herself And sometimes her cats, when they are not busy being jerks.



  • sexy beast

    Ok, so, more gentle hugs from now on! Great article Ottie!

    • Y. I. Otter

      Your hugs are medicinal, Beast. <3

  • 909sfreshtips

    Thanks for sharing, I’m sure there are many that suffer! xx

  • Pingback: Parents' attitude linked to kids' chronic pain | KiiCH.com()

  • Grace Under Pressure

    Thanks so much for writing this. I have fibromyalgia and skate with my team’s travel team. It’s been really challenging at times, but skating has also been a big part of my recovery process. You’ve raised so many important issues here. Thanks again.

  • Chrystal Thornton

    I too had back surgery. Lumbar spine. Herniated disc impinging on my sciatic nerve. While surgery offered some relief I was left disappointed with the daily chronic pain I have been left with. 4 years post-op. Thank you for this article. I have been silent and isolated myself for several months from my team, my skates and my gym. I’m just back now after a 7 month hiatus. The timing of this article is impeccable! Thank you.

  • Chrissy Knox

    Thank you very much for writing about this. I have Chronic Lyme Disease (which includes low immune system and chronic headaches, migraines, muscle & stomach pain). It is very often misdiagnosed in the medical community & therefore not brought to the public. I grew up on skates but as an adult became so sick I could no longer take care of myself. Finally I got a diagnosis and was able to start treatment. 7 years later I am finally able to skate again! My involvement in roller derby has had to be on the outskirts (NSO, Head NSO for league, Sponsors ect). It has been hard not getting to be part of the team and missing out on playing a sport I wish I could be more a part of. What has helped me is learning more about my disease and focusing on what I CAN do (diet, sleep, supplements ect). The hardest part is when my mind and body do not match up. I started fresh meat last Fall and kept getting small injuries. If I had listening to my body I could’ve avoided pulled muscles (such as having to wear a boot) that in turn kept me from skating. When I skate I have to do what I call Body Scans. Continually go from head to toe analyzing how I am doing. My mind is always Happy and endorphins going so I have to be careful to not push myself beyond what I am capable of each day.

  • Mick

    Hi–are you saying that derby causes CPD? I was thinking of getting into the sport but don’t want to suffer in the future for it.

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