One Foot in the Grave? No Way!
Aches and Pains? Get the Massage!
By Tamia Nelson
September 8, 2009
Some days I wake up feeling as if I'd spent the night bouncing down a long Class V drop, only to finish up in the final pool just as dawn breaks, battered and bruised but still alive. I'm sure I'm not alone. The human frame is wonderfully robust, of course. Our muscles have all the resilience of elastic bands, stretching and rebounding countless times without complaint. But sometimes—and here I'm borrowing one of Phil Liggett's signature lines—the elastic suddenly snaps, often without warning.
The result? Pain. Stiffness. And the unwelcome discovery that formerly simple tasks have now become impossible. In a word, misery. Among canoeists and kayakers, strenuous paddling and killer portages are probably the likeliest culprits, though they're far from being the only offenders. Heaving heavy boats on and off racks at home or on the road can also leave us in agony, and the rigors of amphibious expeditions can lay all but athletes low, especially if the planned route involves mile after mile of "rough stuff," towing a heavily loaded trailer up unmaintained jeep tracks and fire roads in search of some remote and little-frequented put-in. Occasionally, even a lazy stretch on first awakening can prove our undoing.
Youngsters and young adults usually bounce back fast. But those of us with more miles on the clock aren't so quick to mend, and old injuries sometimes get a sort of second wind, coming back to plague us long after we thought they'd healed. This happened to me not long ago, when an ancient neck strain flared up. The original damage was done on a rain-slick portage trail, when I stumbled while carrying our 110-pound Old Town XL Tripper. The yoke slipped off my shoulders and the big boat landed squarely on my head, leaving me with a (very) stiff neck and a mighty sore noggin. In a few days, though, I was back to normal. Or so I thought. Then, years later, I lunged to grab a bag of flour that I'd knocked off a high shelf in the kitchen, only to I feel an agonizingly familiar stab of pain in my neck. The sleeping dragon had been roused.
During the following week I lurched around like Richard III, head cocked to one side, muttering curses. Then I did what I should have done immediately—made an appointment with an orthopedist. Happily, he found nothing seriously amiss, but since the pain wasn't going away, he advised a six-week course of physical therapy. I wasn't sure I liked the idea, to be honest. In my mind's eye, physical therapists were muscle-bound sadists with the souls of inquisitors, who practiced their dark arts in cheerless cells filled with instruments of torture. Still, summer was fast approaching, and I was getting anxious to shake off the winter of my discontent. So I figured I'd give the doc's prescription a try. And I'm mighty glad I did. The Terminator Therapist of my bleak imaginings turned out to be a genial triathlete whose professional skills produced almost immediate improvement. I was soon walking upright again, and by the time my six-week course of treatment had ended, my neck was its old self once more, pain-free and fully mobile. No more Richard III.
My dread of encountering a modern-day inquisitor's rack was groundless, obviously. Instead, the time-honored, hands-on arts of massage and manual traction were the linchpins of my recovery. This got me thinking about…
The Benefits of Massage
And I thought even more about them after I developed a persistent cramp in my right calf not long afterward. I didn't have to look hard to find the cause. I'd been alternating long, off-trail tramps on snowshoes with vigorous sessions on a stationary bicycle, and I'd gotten similar recurring cramps before. While the pain was never bad enough to be disabling, it was always annoying, particularly as paddling season was now imminent and kneeling triggered new attacks. Something, I decided, must be done. There wasn't a moment to be lost.
As luck would have it, I had an appointment with my regular doctor coming up. She examined my calf, reviewed my history, and concluded that the best remedy would be a regular regimen of stretching and massage. So far, so good. But I found massaging my own calf surprisingly difficult, and the results, while occasionally encouraging, still left me with some nagging discomfort, which kneeling invariably aggravated. It looked more and more as if I'd be headed back to the physical therapist.
Then I saw a something called the Stick in one of the many mail-order catalogs littering my desk. The catalog copy boasted that the Stick could massage away cramp and other exercise-related muscle pain with short sessions of "rollouts." At first, I dismissed this claim out of hand, thinking it about as likely as the promises of unlimited energy made in those ubiquitous Internet ads. But the pain in my calf continued to come and go, and I wasn't getting any better at the art of self-massage. In the end, a limited-time-only offer of a substantial discount clinched the deal, bolstered by the seller's unconditional money-back guarantee.
In short, that's how I became the slightly bemused owner of the Stick's little brother: the Travel Stick. And my next step? Easy. I planned on…
Giving the Stick a Workout
It wasn't love at first sight, I admit. The Travel Stick looks disconcertingly like something you'd hang over a baby's crib. Here's what I mean:
It's certainly not mechanically complex—just eight hard-plastic rollers strung on a firm-but-bendy rod with a hand grip at each end, making a total length of about 17 inches. What's "firm-but-bendy"? That's hard to quantify, but here's my Travel Stick flexing its muscles against a table top:
More firm than bendy, no? I'm exerting a fair degree of force, too. And what else is there to say? Well, the rollers are smooth (naturally) and ever so slightly barrel-shaped. They're free to rotate around the rod, and they move independently of one another.
That's pretty much the whole story of the Travel Stick itself. Now it was time to put my new acquisition to the test. So I picked it up and rolled it repeatedly over my troublesome calf, applying only moderate pressure. I didn't expect immediate results, of course. But I got them. The lingering pain subsided, then disappeared altogether. I couldn't have been more surprised. Or any happier.
And that was just the start. For months now, I've used my Travel Stick to target sore muscles from the sole of my foot to the nape of my neck. Here's a brief rundown on…
What the Travel Stick Has Done
For me. Let me repeat that: For me. I'm not a physician, nor am I a physical therapist. I'm just a member in good standing of the Over the Hill Gang who likes to paddle, ride a bike, and ramble through the backcountry on my own two legs, scrambling up and down the odd outcrop in the process. Not surprisingly, my muscles occasionally protest. The Stick helps me cope. But what works for me might not work for you, and there are times when vigorous massage is exactly the wrong thing to do. Think deep vein thrombosis (DVT), for one. This relatively common and potentially life-threatening affliction is the bane of high-altitude climbers and frequent flyers, though it can strike anyone at any time. And the first sign is often a persistent ache in the calf or thigh. The upshot? If you're experiencing a new pain in a new place, play it safe. See the doc, and be sure to follow her advice. In fact, that's not a bad idea even if you're experiencing an old pain in an old place. 'Nuff said? I hope so.
Now let's look at how I've used my Travel Stick. The basics are simple. I roll my Stick over the troublesome muscle. Period. I mostly leave my clothes on, and I don't bother with any lubricant—though I've occasionally used the Stick in the shower. (It's waterproof.) So much for the basics. Here's the drill in detail, beginning with my troublesome calf: First, I find a comfortable sitting position, either on the floor or in a chair with my leg elevated on a stool. Things go more smoothly if my muscles are relaxed. Then I roll the Stick over my calf, working from my ankle to just behind the knee. I repeat this again and again, while pressing a bit harder with every stroke. The maker recommends 20 strokes (or "rollouts") for each muscle group, and that seems to work well, though if I find a particularly painful area, or "trigger point," I give it a little extra attention.
In this photo I'm working on the inner aspect of my calf:
The perspective foreshortens my leg, but I'm sure you get the idea. I begin gently, and while I increase the downward force with each repetition, I've never found the need to exceed moderate pressure. Nor do I have to go much beyond the recommended 20 strokes. This is one case where less really is more.
Other muscle groups need slightly different techniques, of course, and a few require that you be something of a contortionist. But where there's a will there's a way. I've now used my Travel Stick on sore shoulders, aching arms, a bothersome back, and a knotted neck. I've even used it to relieve attacks of "hot feet"—a burning sensation across the sole of the foot that sometimes develops in the course of long bike rides. The same principles apply in every instance: I just roll the Stick over the affected area, upping the pressure slightly with each pass. This is where the Travel Stick is at a bit of a disadvantage, since its comparatively short length can make it awkward to manipulate at times. A partner can help, obviously, but unless you suffer from a diminished range of motion in one or both shoulders, proper technique will permit you to go it alone. You'll see some illustrations of various approaches below, courtesy of Farwell. Want to know more? The Stick's website has detailed instructions.
OK. That's the why and the how. Now what's…
The Bottom Line?
I like it. And though the makers of the Stick offer nine models in all, in varying lengths and degrees of bendiness, I'm perfectly happy with my Travel Stick. It's short enough to carry in a rucksack, and that's quite a comfort on any overnighter that includes a long portage. My Stick also stows in a bike bag with room to spare, making strenuous amphibious jaunts by boat, bike, and trailer less fraught.
No pain, all gain. That's a win-win scenario in anyone's book, right? So I'll guess I'll Stick with it.
Pre- and post-workout massages have long been part of professional athletes' training schedules, but few ordinary paddlers can afford to hire a masseur. Now, however, there's a less costly alternative. It's called the Stick, and I've been using one to ease the aches and pains of my hard-worked muscles for quite a few months. What about you? Are you ready to get the massage? Then you just may want to get on the Stick yourself.
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