Sports Medicine Gets Marathoner Back on Course
Published June 2019
Back to the Grind
This story was originally published by Kane County Magazine, June 2017. Reprinted with permission. It has been modified for the HealthBeat audience.
Laura Bransky is a runner. A 26.2-mile runner.
The 48-year-old St. Charles resident has run the Boston Marathon twice and the Fox Valley Marathon three times. But while training for the 2016 Fox Valley Marathon, Laura started having pain, which she originally dismissed as a pulled muscle — until race day.
Laura managed to run about 17 miles of the marathon before the pain started feeling different. After a mile of pain on impact, she stopped. She had to walk another half mile to find her family, hop in the car and go back to the starting line to pick up her belongings. By the time she got out of the car, she couldn’t bear any weight on her leg. “I was crushed,” she says.
From the beginning, I felt like I was in good hands.— Laura Bransky
Another crushing blow came a week later when an MRI confirmed she had a hip stress fracture. Friends who were triathletes referred her to Brian M. Babka, MD, sports medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine Orthopaedics. Dr. Babka is also a triathlete who completed a half-Ironman last year. He spent an hour with Laura during their first appointment, and she says his relatability — and true compassion and reassurance — helped ease her nerves. “From the beginning, I felt like I was in good hands,” she says.
Therapy: The Road to Recovery
At Northwestern Medicine Orthopaedics, if a person has an injury, “it’s not necessarily an excuse to sit around for six weeks and then come back and see me. We believe an athlete needs to have an active recovery and rehabilitation,” says Dr. Babka, who helps manage the Northwestern Medicine Running Medicine Clinic as well as the Northwestern Medicine Concussion Clinic.
He placed Laura on strict rest, including crutches and no unassisted walking, to allow her hip time to heal. But he also suggested she start upper body training so that she would feel mentally engaged in her recovery. After nearly two months on crutches, Laura started aqua therapy, doing exercises to strengthen her leg muscles and gain mobility in the weightlessness of water. After completing a walk-to-run program, she scheduled a running gait analysis to learn to self-correct any flaws in her form, lowering the possibility of recurring injury.
Dr. Babka says he and his team pride themselves on helping athletes get back in the game — and stay there — by making sure they can tolerate activity; getting them back to their sport, pain-free; and giving them the strength and biomechanics needed to never return with the same injury.
Back to the Grind
Today, Laura is back to running. She can run eight miles consistently with no pain. This year, she hopes to tackle a few half marathons, and by next year, she’s looking to run yet another full marathon.
Her time spent with Dr. Babka and the team at Northwestern Medicine Orthopaedics and Northwestern Medicine Rehabilitation Services was great, she says. The therapists were attentive and thorough, and Dr. Babka helped her tackle her mental battles as she re-learned to walk and run.
“He said that in the beginning, the hardest thing for marathoners is to overcome the mental obstacles,” she says. “I didn’t want to walk and was having trouble with that. I probably didn’t run until a month after he gave me the clearance to run, worrying, ‘Oh no, is it going to hurt?’”
Dr. Babka says half of his job is to counsel his patients, and he’s happy to do so. “I don’t think anyone should be subjected to, ‘You’re too old to run or you had an injury, you can’t run anymore,’” he says. “I think there’s always a way.”