Healing of mind and body need much patience, time

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

The swelling will not go down.

We’ve elevated it, iced it and even missed a day of school for it. Still, my son’s fractured ankle refuses to calm down, and it’s wreaking havoc with our lives.

He hurt it while walking between classes, twisting the ankle on the sidewalk’s edge. Yes, he wrestles year-round, skateboards and loves paint ball, but we had no drama with his injury — until we tried to get the swelling down.

The first emergency room splint wrap lasted until our specialist appointment. Then we tried the Velcro boot (the perfect solution to this kind of injury),but it was too large and cumbersome for the age and stage of the patient. Next, a splinted partial cast immobilized the ankle while allowing the swelling to go down.

But after a week of elevating and icing his ankle, the doctor gave us the bad news at the follow-up visit: It was still “too swollen to cast.”

During our first visit, the doctor explained that the swelling had to go down before casting the ankle.

“We need a tight fit for proper healing,” he said. If it is casted while swollen, we learned, there will be excess room when the swelling subsides.

“The swelling needs to go down,” he explained, “so the healing can begin.”

Hmmm. I wrote that one down.

So at that follow-up visit, after another X-ray ensured the injury was no worse, the stubbornly swollen ankle was splinted again, and elevating and icing restarted with renewed vigor.

Meanwhile, I’ve been pondering this swelling business and what it tells us about injury — and life.

When an injury occurs, I’ve learned, the fibers of the affected tissue are disrupted. Often the blood vessels in the area are broken, leaking blood and serum into the surrounding tissue, bringing on swelling and sometimes pain.

In my research, I also discovered that swelling may actually impede the healing process. A recent study at Duke University found that two immune system proteins produced during swelling blocked healing of a damaged knee cartilage.

So swelling can be both an indicator of injury as well as a potential block to healing.

As I reflected on the body’s amazing response system, it dawned on me that the same process occurs when we experience emotional trauma.

Unforeseen illness, divorce, death or other life-changing events hit us like injuries, sending our bodies into react mode. Our minds flood with anger and grief, reacting to the disruption in our lives and the brokenness that we feel.

And there is pain.

Perhaps our anger and grief impede the healing process. We need to find ways to cope, to work through our reactions and adjust to the trauma as we strive to ease the pain and begin to heal.

Like my son’s swollen ankle, however, we can’t circumvent the treatment process. We can’t mislead our doctor, coming in early before the swelling sets in for the day. Casting before the swelling process has truly finished can lead to all sorts of complications, the doctor told us.

So, too, can ignoring our anger or grief.

But can we heal at all before the inflammation subsides, before our bodies have totally adjusted to the trauma?

“Yes,” said our doctor at the second exam. “He’s started to heal.”

And we exhaled.

Swelling or not, we were making progress, and I was grateful.

Heart, mind, body or soul — our bodies demand attention after injury. Treatments may vary, but the goal is the same: to calm down the inflamed reaction, reduce the pain and let the healing begin.