When Joint Hypermbolity Syndrome Is a 'Double-Edged Sword'

Anyone who knows me well knows that if I’m not eating, sleeping, attending college classes, doing homework or otherwise “adulting,” I am probably doing dojang, helping out with taekwondo classes or attending classes myself. After all, it’s my “happy place.” When I was 11, I started martial arts because it just looked like fun and I was pretty flexible, which often worked out in my favor. I trained for a little over a year before life got in the way and I was forced to make a decision about what sports I wanted to do. Unfortunately, taekwondo was the first sport to go. It was the end of an era…. Or was it?

In June 2012, I injured my finger while on a mission trip in Michigan and let’s just say life hasn’t been the same since. Surgery followed and I soon rejoined my high school basketball team on the court. I repeatedly injured that finger all summer while playing basketball and chose to tough it out. After all, our coach always told us to put our bodies on the line for the good of the team (advice I will never follow again!). By the time fall rolled around, my right pinkie/hand hurt 24/7 and it hurt! I was eventually diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).

That was a devastating blow to me. It marked the end of my basketball career and life as I knew it. However, anyone with a chronic illness knows that is it is pretty much impossible to have just one chronic illness. I ended up in wheelchair because my legs were so incredibly weak that they would just give out beneath me for no reason. About a year since the fiasco started, a new martial arts school was opening up near my home and I started reminiscing about my taekwondo days five years earlier. I went back and forth for a week between “I want to do it again!” and “Meghan, you’re nuts. You can barely stay out of that wheelchair!” Fortunately, the “I can do anything” side of internal dialogue won.

Come January 6th, 2014, I stepped back out on to the mats and the rest is history. Taekwondo quickly became my escape from the sometimes overwhelming and unfair reality. It was going really well until I realized that I was too flexible; I could sprain my ankles really easily and my joints didn’t want to stay in place. This was a huge blow because this wasn’t just pain I could ignore. I actually need my ankles, hips, wrists, elbows, shoulders – well, everything – to stay together. An orthopedic surgeon quickly realized that it was joint hypermobility syndrome (JHS). JHS makes my joints incredibly unstable at times. I sublux at least one joint, usually more, every day. At this point, I am completely dependent on ankle braces to support my ankles when I am training. Even then, I still manage to sprain my ankles.

It’s been almost two years since I started having problems keeping my joints in place. It makes me incredibly angry when a joint comes out and keeps me from training with the best technique possible or holds me out altogether. It’s a double-edged sword. Flexibility in a sport like taekwondo can really work to my advantage, but it can also be my body’s kryptonite – a built-in self-destruct button. Right now, I’m working on a broadsword form and every single time I train with it, I sublux fingers or my wrists without fail. Obviously, every time that happens I lose my grip a little and my technique slips, which angers me a lot – especially because there’s not much I can do to prevent the situation when I’m training.

Recently, I had an episode whilst at taekwondo class. The world swirls almost as if entering the twilight zone… I’m… I’m slipping. Blink… Blink… Everything goes dark. The world goes on while I’m unconscious. Valuable time that I could be using to practice taekwondo, study or learn new material.

When I awake, a headache so severe I have no words for it strikes. My vision blurs. I stutter in an effort to communicate. My neck and spine have a hot poker ripping right through the middle. Swallowing becomes difficult and my speech becomes slurred.

As I spasm uncontrollably, forcing my body into unnatural positions, tendons and ligaments tear and bones threaten to buckle under the constant strain. Bones and joints dislocate as every square inch of my body burns in fiery neuropathic pain exacerbated by the muscles rubbing against them.

When I truly come back to it, I’m in my dark bedroom lying in my bed, taekwondo uniform on, with soft music playing. The pain intensifies to a point that no medication can relieve.

That is what the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt feels like. I have no words. Even though I can’t magically add collagen to my joints, the one thing that I’ve learned from martial arts is that I can always control my attitude. So every time (or at least most of the time) my joints come out, I smile to myself and remind myself that I’m getting a little extra character-building practice.

And even though my chronic illnesses try to invade the mat, my instructors, my classmates and me, I fight to keep them away from my happy place because they will not win!

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