The Science of Injury – Part One – Deconditioning

Hello, all!

So sorry, (AGAIN!), for my absence from ye olde bloggy sphere.

I am finally moved into my new apartment, and it actually is beginning to look like a livable space, thanks in great part to my new roommate and some lovely friends who’ve helped me unpack and rearrange furniture.

As promised, I am back on the blogging trail and beginning a series of entries concerning the above title: The Science of Injury.

As a physical therapist whose worked in the hospital, a nursing home, school, outpatient clinic, with sports teams, and as a guest lecturer in PT schools, I have a fair amount of knowledge on how people act and recover from injuries, accidental or otherwise.

Over the course of the next month or so, depending on how many topics I think of (there’s currently 30ish), I’ll be presenting information based on my education and first hand experience with patients of all kinds. I’m hoping this will give you insight into how your characters might feel when they’re injured or ill.

For those who have requested I cover certain topics and injuries, I promise I will address them.

But for my first entry, I’m going to address a fundamental scientific principle that many writers seem to forget, or simply don’t know. I’ve read more books than I can count that completely ignore this principle.

Deconditioning.

I know, I know. If you type that word, autocorrect wants to change it to reconditioning or something similar. Those little red lines drive me nuts, but don’t correct it! I promise it is a real word.

Deconditioning is a process in the body that occurs when injury, or decreased activity, is placed upon a person. The response? Our bodies weaken so quickly we barely recognize ourselves after only a few days or weeks of being immobile.

Tired after a shower

Many scholarly studies have shown we lose 1.5-2 pounds of strength in our large leg muscles for each day of bed rest. That’s just the large muscles. It happens much quicker in the small muscles. Especially those surrounding our lungs and heart. Why do you think people tire so quickly when they’re released from the hospital? It’s partly due to our bodies expending so much energy to heal itself. The other part is the loss of endurance and muscle that happens all over our body when we’re in an immobile and painful or weakened state.

Imagine being stuck in the hospital with the flu or pneumonia, or another infection of some kind. You’re not skipping the halls for joy. You’re primarily laying in bed willing your body to get better. Never mind the fact that we sleep worse, are surrounded by pathogens searching for a host body, and have interruptions all day from doctors, nurses, and other health personnel at all hours of the day and night while in the hospital.

Let me put it simply: for every day you spend in bed, or in the hospital, it takes at least a week to recover from that episode. Four days in the hospital? It’s going to be a month’s recovery, at the very least.

That does not include time required to heal large wounds or recover from a surgery or gunshot wound, etc. That only adds to the weakening over our bodies.

And this happens to every single person.

I’ve treated world champion athletes and those who play in professional sports, and I can tell you, EVERYONE is susceptible to deconditioning. Even the biggest, burliest dude in the world will be weak as a puppy after a few weeks in the hospital.

Think about it. If you’re in the hospital for a week or two, you’ll have lost up to 25% of your body strength. Yikes! And it does not come back right away. It takes time and good, healthy surroundings to get you back on your feet. And what about those patients that have no one to help them? That leave the hospital by a bus and go back to their hideaway in a box somewhere on the streets of downtown anywhere?

Well, their recovery is a long time in coming, if ever.

I’ll share a personal experience. When I was in the 4th grade, I had pneumonia for a whole month. I missed the entire month of November in school because I was so sick.

What does pneumonia attack? The lungs. It took me years to recover from the damage to my lungs after that. I’m still not sure how great they are, and yes, injuries and illnesses from childhood can permanently damage your body, except it doesn’t often show up until later in life.

And kids heal quickly. Even as a 10 year-old, it took my body so long to heal. Imagine someone in the 50s or 60s, still fairly young, but their bodies aren’t able to rebound as quickly as a child’s. Their recovery will be far longer.

So, think about it when you are writing a character’s injury. No matter how amazingly strong they are, their body will be bruised and battered and require TIME to heal. They will NOT just pop out of bed after a week in it. If they do, their blood pressure will suddenly drop and they’ll faint, or their legs will drop out from underneath them and they’ll buckle to the ground.

People are weak, tired, grumpy, and needy after an illness or injury. We can’t disregard that when writing. It is a disservice to the nature of our characters, as well as to the intelligence of our readership.

Of course, people go to the hospital for simple procedures all the time, and they’re up and walking around most of the time, but there is still a time of recovery, and pushing right back into normal routines without using the right sequence of rehabilitation could end up sending them right back to square one, or even behind.

Don’t underestimate what inactivity does to our bodies. They’re more fragile than they appear.

If you have any specific questions about deconditioning or need guidance concerning a character’s healing process, please leave a comment and I will reply as soon as I can.

Also, if you have any ideas for topics for this series of posts, please comment below.

Happy writing, everyone! It’s good to be back!

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9 thoughts on “The Science of Injury – Part One – Deconditioning

    • Thank you! It’s good to be back! And I’m sorry I didn’t reply to your wonderfully sweet nomination of the Liebster award. I have been nominated in the past and have taken part in it. I am so humbled and grateful for your nomination. You can search for my past award updates at my blog. 🙂 Thank you for thinking of me!

  1. Great, just throw a wrench in my timeline with this reality check . . . 🙂 Just kidding, this is a really good point that a lot of authors completely ignore. I’ve tried to factor it in to my plots, though it’s probably not nearly as big of a thing as it should be, with what some of my characters go through. I can think of a few books off the top of my head where authors really make deconditioning (you’re right, there are those dumb red lines) a part of their story, and it makes a huge difference in the believability.

    Glad to see you back, and I’m looking forward to your future posts in the series!

  2. WOW! I LOVE this post! Not just as it relates to writing, but as it relates to LIFE! Speaking as a person that has had more than her fair share of illnesses from multiple sinus infections to MRSA, scarlet fever and whopping cough, and been hospitalized for many of those, I ALWAYS encounter people (who have usually never had more than a cold or two in their lives) who think I’m a big wimp when I don’t just jump back into the swing of things the day after I start antibiotics. (And as it relates to writing, I LOVE that you’re letting the non-sickie authors know what it’s like, too.) Thank you for setting the record straight! 😀 And also welcome back! 😀

    • Thank you! I enjoyed writing it.
      You poor dear! I’ve treated many patients in the hospital with the things you’ve had. Getting them up and moving again after being so sick.
      Yes, it really bothers me that writers will research the latest type of air-to-ground missile launching patterns, but they won’t simply investigate how long it takes people to recover from injuries. HUGE pet peeve of mine!

      • LOL! As you know from my blog, I was a paralegal for 14 years…so when I see a legal TV show or read a legal scene in a book, I feel the same way. It makes me cringe and laugh at the same time. 🙂

  3. How did I miss this one? Very interesting, I guess I won’t be as unsympathetic to my husband now after he has to go back to ruck marches in his full kit after he gets sick – usually from something I had first.

    • Well, it doesn’t help that I hadn’t posted in almost a month until a few days ago. 🙂
      Being sick and confined to bed is much more damaging than we realize. Most healthy people bounce back quickly, but it does take time.

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