It’s horrifying to think of someone being dragged by a frightened horse, tearing four knee ligaments completely in half and breaking her lower leg in three places. But rather than resigning herself to an inactive life with a “bad leg,” Nicki Branch amazed her orthopedic physician by hiking up a mountain less than ten months after her accident. And her remarkable recovery did not involve surgery.
To put the damage into perspective, the orthopedist said it was the worst soft tissue injury he had ever seen. Nicki had torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and lateral collateral ligament (LCL). In fact, Nicki’s case was so severe that it was presented at several medical conferences. The grim prognosis was that recovery would take at least 18 months and the patient could not expect to have a fully functioning knee. But the physicians didn’t know Nicki.
I met Nicki through our mutual love of horses. I was a presenter at the Holistic Horse Workshop, an educational seminar that featured complementary approaches to horse and rider care. As I described how the brain often needs to be retrained after injury, Nicki listened closely. Although her fractures had healed and her ligaments were mending, she was still in significant pain and walked with a pronounced limp. As she sat in the audience that day, she had a feeling that my work could help her.
Nicki is the founder of FalconRidge Equine Rescue in Valley Center, California. For several years, she has rescued, rehabilitated and re-homed horses. Having helped countless horses overcome lameness, near starvation, neglect and abuse, Nicki was no stranger to recovery. It’s just this time she needed to focus her recovery on herself.
I had the pleasure of giving Nicki her first Feldenkrais Method® session on September 25, 2012, about nine months after her injury. During our Feldenkrais® session, I discovered that Nicki’s protective neuromuscular bracing, which she developed after the injury, was now working against her. Guarding and compensating for her damaged leg had become a habit, but a habit that had outlived its usefulness. Nicki was unconsciously tensing and overusing certain muscles while avoiding others.This inhibited her movement and created unnecessary strain.
It is very common for people to hold onto protective habits since they once served a useful purpose. But these unhealthy movement patterns can cause pain, stiffness and damage to joints over time. They interfere with freedom of movement and quality of life. Most people, however, don’t realize that they have these harmful movement habits.
The Feldenkrais Method works to uncover such inefficient habits of movement and helps people learn how to move in a more comfortable, efficient and healthier way. Aches and pains often disappear. Flexibility, balance, posture and coordination improve. Simply put, the Feldenkrais Method helps us develop awareness, so that we can move through life with ease and grace.
With her increased awareness, Nicki’s limp, and pain, virtually disappeared. If she felt pain starting to return, Nicki adjusted her gait and walking became comfortable again. Remarkably, just days after our second Feldenkrais session, Nicki drove to the Sierras and hiked nine miles up to 11,000 feet in elevation!
Interestingly, the Feldenkrais Method has its origins in a devastating knee injury. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, a physicist, engineer and martial artist, had badly injured his knee playing soccer as a young man. Years later, he re-injured his knee while working on a submarine. The doctors wanted to operate, but gave him only a 50% chance of being able to walk again.
Unwilling to accept those odds, Dr. Feldenkrais set about learning how to improve himself. Ever the scientist, he used his own body as a laboratory. Making tiny, delicate movements, Dr. Feldenkrais explored how his knee functioned. He discovered that small, slow movements allowed him to feel more than larger, effortful movements.
Moshe Feldenkrais said that our greatest quality is the ability to recover. Nicki Branch, a woman who devotes so much of her life helping horses recover from dire situations, has that quality in spades. She is an inspiration to us all.
Mary Debono is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm who travels internationally to work with animals and their people. Her website is http://www.SENSEmethod.com. Mary can be reached at Mary@SENSEmethod.com or 858.842.4006.