I Wanted To Be A Professional Surfer… Until A Physio Damaged My Neck And Left Me In Pieces

How do you cope when an injury threatens to stop you from doing what you love for good? Surfer Charlotte Bayliss explains...

Photo: Jaimee Arthurs

“I was surfing in an English longboarding competition back in 2013. The surf was massive. Waves were crashing on my head as I struggled to paddle back out.

Halfway through the heat, my arm just gave up. My hand was numb. Stabbing pains were running down my arm. I remember coming out of the water and bursting into tears.

It was only as she positioned my head that I realised what she was about to do was wrong…

Injury was never something I thought I’d have to accept. Of course, I’ve had illness before, but I’ve discovered having a physical injury that stops you doing what you love it much harder to cope with.

It all started back in 2012. I was on my last physiotherapy placement when a master’s student asked if she could practice her manipulation [thrusting or ‘clicking’] on my neck.

Photo: Charlotte Bayliss

I allowed her to go ahead, assuming she was proficient. It was only as she positioned my head that I realised what she was about to do was wrong.

I asked her to stop if she didn’t know what she was doing. She assured me she did and quickly manipulated my neck.

For the next two weeks, I had a fuzzy headache most of the time. My neck and shoulders felt tight. I knew that there was something not quite right.

At the same time, I had moved from surfing my shortboard onto using my longboard much more. I was trying to tell myself it was this that was causing severe arm and hand pain, numbness in my hand and a lazy shoulder.

Photo: Mary Stamm-Clarke

My friends often say that ‘I know too much’. As a physiotherapist, I often understand what is going on, which results in me having a bit of a panic.

I knew it wouldn’t be fixed overnight and I knew it was going to be hard work but with the support of my physio Lauren, I almost felt that I could start on a new, alternate road to recovery.

It’s still difficult to accept sometimes I need to hang my wetsuit back up and not paddle out…

Eight months on, after staying out of the water for eight weeks and not horse riding, the symptoms were gone but I was still left with a lazy shoulder that didn’t want to paddle for more than ten minutes.

Now, over two years down the line, I’ve progressed but it’s still incredibly difficult to accept that sometimes I need to hang my wetsuit back up and not paddle out.

Photo: Charlotte Bayliss

My favourite surf used to be just overhead and clean. Now, if it’s anything over shoulder height without an easy paddle out, I’m likely to struggle and end up feeling down.

I thought by now I would be back fit and ready to compete again – but I’m not. Pilates has helped me make a huge leap forwards, but there’s still a long way to go.

Any injury doesn’t just affect you physically, it hits you emotionally and mentally as well. One day, you’re making improvements, then next you’re feeling weak and in pain.

I think we take for granted how important removing stress and upset from your life can be. When I’m feeling down, my shoulder just doesn’t want to work.

Photo: Charlotte Bayliss

But when I’m feeling positive and confident, my shoulder wants to go surfing and not let me down.

If I take one thing from this injury, it is this: listen to your body. Look after it because it is the only one you’ve got. When it tells you to slow down, listen.

I didn’t – and now I’ve dragged out the time it’s taken for me to recover. I tried to block the physical injury out and it sent me into a downwards spiral of emotions.

Photo: Jaimee Arthurs

I even thought I would have to quit surfing and horse riding for good at one point.

Surrounded yourself by people who care for you. Making time for yourself is essential.

As a physiotherapist I see people everyday that spend all their energy looking after others and they forget about themselves.

Don’t feel guilty about those 30 minutes you take to do your exercises or have some time out. It is so important. In the long term, it will benefit not only you but those around you to.”

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