My medical story

I was born very flexible. The OBG who delivered me laughed when he examined me and saw how elastic I was. The first profession I ever said I wanted to have was “a ballerina of the stars”, because I loved dancing and I loved the universe and wanted to combine them somehow.

By the time I was 14, I had tried all sorts of things; artistic gymnastics, acrobatics, ballet, flamenco, and, eventually, I found myself in rhythmic gymnastics. I loved them all, but that couple of years I did rhythmics I was happier than I’ve ever been in my life. The problem was, we had a splits exercise called “double bench”, basically doing the splits with each leg on a foot-high bench to achieve more than 180 degrees flexibility. I’d always been quite patient with flexibility exercises, though they can be quite painful, so when I started complaining that my knee hurt, my instructor should have realized that I wasn’t just “whining”. Instead, she kept pushing me, telling me I was lazy. So, I kept going, enduring the pain.

After a few months, I had developed a permanent pain in both knees. After my instructor’s advice, I saw a sports doctor. He basically didn’t offer much. He just dismissed the problem as a passing one and gave me an analgesic pill, a thermal topical cream, and told me to wear braces while I practice. I followed his advice, but I didn’t really see any difference. I stopped doing anything that made my knees hurt, which meant I couldn’t really do anything in class.

The pain was getting worse and worse and, eventually, I couldn’t dance at all. In fact, I couldn’t do pretty much anything. I couldn’t climb stairs, couldn’t sit on the floor because I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t sit for too long, or walk for more than ten minutes without needing to stop because of the pain. I couldn’t find a position to sleep, and the pain was always bad when I woke up because my legs were stationary for too long.

A. Normal alignment B. Decreased Q angle (genu varum)
C. Increased Q angle (genu valgum)
We forgot the sports doctors and went to an orthopedics, instead. The verdict was chondropathy for both knees, a disease of the cartilage of the knee, following it’s grinding against the bone, due to a condition called genu valgum (more commonly known as "knock-knee"), in which the knees angle in and touch each other when the legs are straightened. The abnormal angle between the upper and the lower leg leads to the bone biting into the cartilage of the knee, causing the pain. Genu valgum is also often accompanied by pes planus, i.e. flat feet. At least we had a diagnosis. He proposed full rest and avoiding any movement that causes pain. He forbade me to bend the knee more than 90 degrees or straightening it, sitting cross-legged etc. Doing all these things, I stopped getting worse, which was very welcome, but I wasn’t getting better. After a few months we went back and he basically didn’t have anything else to propose. I went through a few different doctors after that, but nobody had anything to add.

Finally, someone proposed I went to a podiatrist to make me insoles to keep my arch elevated. It was very high tech, he made me walk on a pad and showed me the pressure footprint onscreen. Most of it was red, which meant the pressure was above normal and, also, the footprint had no curves since I didn’t have an arch, it was just amorphous. He made me the insoles, and they actually did make me feel better while I was walking. However, they only fit with trainers, so I could really only wear trainers for months. I got a bit better because of the insoles, at least I could move around a bit more, but I still wasn’t very functional.

They also proposed physical therapy. I went to a place recommended by a friend. I spent months doing several physical therapies, including ultrasounds and electrotherapy. Nothing was happening, and if nothing else electrotherapy was actually making my knees feel weirder, more unstable. I kept bugging them that I’m not feeling better, but they didn’t try anything else. I was becoming more and more depressed.

After a year and a half since the pain started, I had very little improvement, big bills, and little hope that something would actually help me. Additionally, I was suddenly stationary for too long which, in combination to my bad psychological state, lead to me taking on 45 pounds. The additional weight only made my medical condition and my mental state even worse. Being a gymnast all my life, I loathed my new body, I couldn’t recognize myself in it. I was only 15, my future in dancing was stolen from me, my self-image had suffered a huge blow, and I had little hope anything could happen to change that.

That’s when Maria came into my life. She had already helped my sister’s friend after a car accident had damaged her knee so much that she needed several surgeries to rebuild it. And, she was a dancer, too. She knew exactly how I felt and I promised me Maria would help. Maria was a Pilates instructor, one of the first in my country, Greece. She had traveled all over the world, trained by the best of the field. She was collaborating with orthopedic surgeons and specialized on injury rehabilitation. We went to see her and she made me walk around to see how I moved. She had trouble hiding her concern. She said we’d have a lot of work to do and that I’d have to work with her. She was quite expensive, but she told me to come in for ten half hour sessions, two per week, and that if she managed to help me, I’d be already better by then. We had a specific goal, not just an open-ended "keep coming and you'll feel better some day". She asked for my x-rays and told me she’d take a few days to think of the best exercises for my case.

This chair is a common Pilates apparatus.
This is one of the exercises I had on it.
It was the most intense, focused exercise I’ve ever had. Maria wasn’t about jumping up and down like a goat, or trying so hard you huff and puff and hurt. She was about very precise, contained movements that focused on specific muscles and protected the joints. I had to keep breathing steadily and be very mindful about where every part of my body was. She kept a steady commentary of corrections “tummy in, don’t relax the butt, you’re clenching your shoulders, don’t forget to breathe” and I followed her instructions as best as I could. She made me discover muscles I didn’t know I have, and the sessions, though short and seemingly simple, left my muscles trembling from the effort, and it was almost as challenging for my brain as it was for my body.

The difference was amazing. After only the first two sessions, my legs felt stronger. Forget about insoles, I was holding my arch with my own muscles, training my body to stand differently. My muscles were getting stronger and stronger, the pain was getting less and less, and my confidence raised its head timidly. After only a month the pain was practically gone. I could walk, I could climb stairs, I didn’t have to wear trainers all the time; I could even stay barefoot, which was impossible before. I thanked Maria from the bottom of my heart and she was very pleased we made it. It was truly a miracle for me. In only a month I got my future back. That future didn’t involve my being an athlete, but it was a future free of pain, and a future that didn’t exclude dancing completely. And that was more than I had dared hope.

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