Saturday, February 25, 2012

On Getting Comfortable With the Time Frame for Healing Bad Knees

The New Yorker recently ran a short piece in the front of the magazine entitled "Countdown." The theme was unpredictability, but I took away a different message.

In 1927, we are told, a physics professor in Australia by the name of Thomas Parnell set up an experiment to demonstrate how viscous a fluid can be. "He poured hot pitch into a glass funnel, let it cool, then waited."

And waited.

And waited.

Eight years later, a drop fell. Nine more years passed before the second drop. All in all, there have been eight drops at an average interval of ten years. It takes very little time for a drop to descend: about one-tenth of a second. No one has actually seen one falling.

Sometime in 2013, the ninth drop of pitch is expected. Then, after it falls, there will be a good decade of waiting until the next one.

How's that for slow?

Still, what I found most interesting about the experiment wasn't how long it takes for a drop of pitch to separate out from the mass it's a part of. Rather, it was the idea that pitch -- like a pair of bad knees -- has its own scale of time on which it changes. Someone who failed to appreciate this might have packed up the pitch experiment after five or six years, deeming it a failure.

Similarly, in nursing my knees back to health, I realized the importance of "cartilage time." Some readers of Saving My Knees may naively interpret this term simply as advice to "be patient." The truth is, "cartilage time" is something more subtle.

It's a recognition that your treatment plan must be based on the right time scale -- the time scale for what you're trying to heal. How long is that, for cartilage and soft tissues inside a joint? What I found: Not days. Not weeks. But many months, or even years.

What happens when your expectations aren't "in sync" with this reality? For one, you get frustrated. For example, suppose you go to a physical therapist and are told, to heal your grumbling knees, you must strengthen your quadriceps and other muscles. So you embark on a muscle-strengthening program.

Many frustrations may follow (partly because you're focused on strengthening the wrong thing). But one reason you'll be unhappy after a couple of months (when your knees feel no better) is because you mistakenly expect to improve on a muscle-strengthening schedule (which is over weeks, or a few months). Actually you need to adjust your expectations to a much longer time frame.

Getting the time scale wrong can be an incredible source of frustration. Early on in my struggle, my knees would feel a little better one week, a little worse the next. That proved maddening. I felt lost. Was there never going to be an end to this misery?

But when I realized I wasn't going to recover in a few weeks -- or even a few months -- my outlook changed. I made my peace with the fact it was going to take a while. I became more patient. My program to heal became more gradual. And that was a good thing.

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