As I looked up at the pretty yellow aspen leaves fluttering against the blue Colorado sky, all I could think was, “F@&k, that was my collarbone.”
I didn’t intend on sky gazing on Monday. I was only on the ground looking up at the leaves because a deer took me out while I was descending The Chutes, a popular trail in Colorado Springs. He had been munching leaves off to the side of the trail and, upon noticing me, decided to jump toward me instead of the other way. In truth I don’t know if the deer hit me or if I hit him, but in the end he pranced away and I had the pleasure of riding a few miles of single track nursing a broken collarbone.
A broken collarbone is the second-most common cycling-related injury, second only to abrasions. In 40+ years of cycling I have broken my left collarbone twice and this time I broke my right one. I am not a doctor and would not presume to give medical advice, but here are some recommendations for dealing with the immediate aftermath of a broken collarbone.
Sometimes it will be clear you broke a bone. Other times all you will know is that something in your shoulder really hurts and it’s limiting the function of your arm. As painful as it is, force yourself to check yourself out beyond the focal point of that injury. Did you hit your head? Are you bleeding profusely from your knee? Do your other limbs work? Do you remember where you are? Remembering to perform a comprehensive body check is important because it’s possible the broken collarbone is not the worst of your problems.
Evaluate your options
If you’re riding with someone you will obviously have someone to help you get home or get help. And though riding with partners is the safest way to go, let’s admit it, a lot of us ride alone some or all of the time. If you’re by yourself and break your collarbone, consider yourself fortunate. Yes, fortunate. It might hurt, but if a broken collarbone is the worst of your injuries, you have a lot going for you. If you’re breathing and your legs still work, you may be able to walk or ride to a place where you can get help. In contrast, in 1986 I broke my femur in a back-country ski accident. I wasn’t alone, but I also couldn’t do much to help myself and even with a group of people it took more than 5 hours to get me out of there.
If you have any doubt about being able to help yourself, call 911. If you are far from home, in an unfamiliar place, or don’t have friends or family nearby, calling 911 or search-and-rescue is a good idea even if you think you can walk/ride your way to safety. If you are close to home and confident you don’t need help from a first-responder, at least call a friend or family member to let them know what happened. It’s important to do this before you start walking or riding again so someone knows where you are, what happened, and that you are planning on walking/riding to safety. That way, if your condition deteriorates that person can come get you and/or send help.
If you’re going to go, get moving
Your body has a remarkable ability to shield you from intense pain, but only for limited time. If you decide you are walking/riding your way to safety, take advantage of this time to get your stuff together and get moving down the road or trail. In my case, I had about 3 miles to ride on single track to get to my car. It was uncomfortable, but manageable. And keep in mind; some of this “fight-or-flight” response is based on the situation, not just time post injury. It was only once I was back to the relative safety of the car that the pain really started to intensify.
Go to the hospital and consult an orthopedist
When you get back to safety, go to the hospital to get checked out. But even if the emergency room doctors tell you it’s a simple break that will heal by being in a sling, make an appointment to see an orthopedic surgeon. Best case scenario, the ER docs were right and you wait it out. But as an athlete, the extra doctor appointment is worth it so you can make a plan to return to your active lifestyle at full strength.
Don’t overdo it with painkillers
Depending on who you see in the ER or physician’s office, you may be offered heavy-duty opioid painkillers. Those medications are great for managing pain but have the potential for addiction, as evidenced by the current nationwide crisis of opioid addiction. This is only my opinion, but I would rather be uncomfortable in the short term than develop a long-term dependence on opioids. As an athlete you are accustomed to being uncomfortable. You actively seek discomfort in order to improve your performance. Broken bones heal and the pain is temporary; don’t overdo it with painkillers and risk creating an even bigger problem for yourself.
What about getting back to training? I’ll cover that coming up soon!
CEO/Head Coach of CTS