Not all disabilities are visible
November is Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) Awareness Month and the Skiggle team will be donning their brightest orange attire on the 1st of November - ‘Colour the World Orange Day’ - to help raise awareness of this debilitating chronic pain condition and show not all disabilities are visible. Skiggle ambassador, Mark Clougherty was first diagnosed with CRPS following a nasty leg break in 2009, which ultimately led to his medical discharge from the Army four years later. We asked him to tell us a little bit more about his diagnosis and the ongoing challenges of living with CRPS.
“I’ve always been physically active and involved in sport. My dad was a professional football player, so I was playing football as soon as I could walk! In my late teens, I played Scottish youth level at St Mirren and Dumbarton, and when I joined the Army, I started playing corp football, which is the top level. I was probably in the best form of my life, but then I broke my leg…
“The break was so bad; I was constantly on and off crutches and needed four operations in three years and that was when the doctors diagnosed a condition called CRPS in my right leg. My legs and hips had always been so strong, but after the break, and not working the right leg the same, my muscles became weaker. My leg never healed to a standard where I could meet the physical requirements to stay in the Army, which was hard to accept. I went from training and playing football a few times a week to being practically immobile. I had pain in my leg. I had pain in my hip. Previously straightforward exercises like weighted squats caused me pain. I was in pain all the time. My mood nosedived and I went into a period of bad depression, but even then, I still had no idea how bad the CRPS would become.
Fighting through the pain barrier
“One of the biggest things to come to terms with was losing the sense of belonging to a team – whether on the football pitch or in the Army. All my life, I had been taught the importance of being part of a team and the CRPS diagnosis took that away. But then in 2018, the opportunity to be involved with Help for Heroes at the US Air Force (USAF) Trials for the ‘US Department of Defense Warrior Games’, came along and there was no holding me back! The Games celebrate the resiliency and dedication of wounded, ill, and injured active duty and veteran US military service members, and the trials were taking place at the Ellis Air Force base in Las Vegas. In 2018, rather than it just being USAF personnel taking part, they invited a small group from the UK and Australia to mix it up and add a bit more competition.
“I applied to go and was selected to take part in the cycling. I trained for six weeks leading up to it and on my last session noticed a strange pain across my lower back. Wondering if it was just because I had adjusted the saddle, I thought nothing of it and flew out to Las Vegas with the team. However, after about 40 minutes of racing, the same back pain returned but was 10 times worse. Determined to finish the race, I passed the start/finish line another three times - riding through tears and hiding the pain for another 20 minutes - before collapsing at the end. The spasms going down my right leg were horrendous. I was carried on a stretcher to the ambulance where they gave me morphine and battlefield acupuncture, which was lots of gold studs being put into different parts of your ear. At one point the medics/physio asked me to move my right foot. Not thinking anything of it, I tried but could only move it away from me. Ten minutes later they asked me to do the same again and I couldn’t move it at all. It was like looking at someone else’s foot. I never knew then I would lose the use of it for four days. I was also experiencing these really bad tremors in my right leg that would last for 15 minutes at a time. The more I tried to fight them, the more intense they became until I was physically exhausted with the effort. At the hospital, I was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, which is where your muscles start to break down releasing a protein into your bloodstream that can lead to kidney failure. I was in hospital for four days but had spasms and tremors for weeks afterwards. I think this was the point when I realised just how bad the CRPS could be.
Find your focus and set yourself goals
“Since the incident at the USAF Trials, I’m constantly fluctuating on and off crutches and have had to accept that CRPS deteriorates over time. It’s a brutal condition that affects your nervous system and for me, the legs are the target. The toes on my right foot have started to curl over, I get regular spasms in my calf, and my legs can basically just turn to jelly and collapse under me. It’s hard, but you’ve got to find your own way of coping. For me, its setting new targets every year to keep going and to focus on something other than the pain. It’s now just over six months until I take part in the wheelchair athletics and hand bike events at the Invictus Games in The Hague, and despite the pandemic-related challenges of the last 18 months, I’ve restarted my training and I’m looking forward to representing the UK next April. The Invictus Games are all about helping veterans recover and are an important stepping stone on that recovery journey. Covid meant the Games had to be rescheduled from 2020, so it feels like they’ve been a long time coming, and it will be great to catch up with the team again at the training camps in November.
“For anyone else coping with CRPS, my advice would be: ‘If you’ve got a focus and you find something to attach yourself to, you can live with the conditions you’ve got. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Just believe there’s something worth focusing on and give yourself that all-important goal to achieve!”
You can follow Mark’s journey in the run up to the 2022 Invictus Games on his Instagram page. To find out more about CRPS Awareness Month, visit https://www.burningnightscrps.org/crps-rsd-support/donations/crps-awareness-month.