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Karen Smith: from physio to swimming the channel

Posted on August 20th, 2015

A remarkable story from one of our patients, Karen Smith. She took up swimming as part of her rehabilitation from Cauda Equine Syndrome. This weekend she’s swimming the channel.

We’ll let Karen take up the story….

In 2010 I suffered from a condition called Cauda Equina Syndrome. CES affects a bundle of nerve roots called Cauda Equina (Latin for horse’s tail). These nerves are located at the lower end of the spinal cord in the lumbosacral spine. They send and receive messages to and from your legs, feet, and pelvic organs.

I had started with a lower backache, which soon progressed into sciatic pain down my right leg.  After several visits to the GP I had been reassured that I had a bulging disc in my lower back and that with physiotherapy and pain killers I would soon be on the mend.  But after going to A&E, I was rushed to Salford Royal where I was diagnosed with Cauda Equina Syndrome.  I underwent surgery to remove a disc that had been compressing my spinal cord.

When I was discharged I was told how lucky I was to be able to walk, but my right leg had barely worked and it felt cold and wooden.  It seemed to drag behind me.  I spent two weeks resting and when I did start to walk just managing 50 metres was a real workout.  The nerves that had supplied the right side had been damaged so moving my leg was difficult.  I was also incontinent and became depressed struggling with these sensitive issues.

I eventually plucked up the courage to go swimming as my physio had recommended it. It was awful. My leg dragged, I was conscious what I looked like and worried about having an accident as I was undergoing bladder and bowel retraining.  I nearly didn’t go back but it soon became my therapy and it made me feel happy again.

I gradually returned to work after six months as a childrens staff nurse and with support I focused on making a good recovery. I attended a back rehabilitation course and built up my fitness. I slowly got back to work but still suffered from an achy back and, recurring cramps to my  right calf.  The longest episode lasting  sixteen hours.  It would wake me up several times a night and happened whilst driving and simply walking up the stairs. It also stopped me from swimming .

Over the last five  years I have seen numerous professionals, have been on many medications,  had acupuncture, hypnotherapy and had lots of physiotherapy but nothing seemed to help for the long-term.  I just kept being reminded that I was very lucky not to be in a wheelchair and it was just the remnants of Cauda Equina. This upset me and I felt frustrated. As swimming became a large part of my life the cramping became a huge issue and I was unable to swim longer than twenty  minutes without being disabled by it.  I was never able to recover from the cramp to keep swimming so this started to get me down.



I was regularly rescued by the safety boat whilst swimming in Salford Quays, which is also where I work with my partner who owns Uswim Openwater. I am team leader there and swim coach but I simply stopped swimming. I had built up a huge fear of cramping and drowning and was having the same recurring dream which began to haunt me.

I was never a club swimmer and was taught by my mum in the local pool when I was twelve but had fallen in love with open water swimming since setting my very first challenge of a one mile swim in Salford Quays.  After that I had become hooked.

My partner Dave got me an appointment to see Rob Harris at Harris & Ross and my life has changed again.  From the first appointment there was a plan.  There was no “this is how it is” but there was a reason, an explanation to my symptoms and there was encouragement.  No longer did I feel like I was overreacting to the cramps and being over sensitive which had been mentioned previously.

We started by working on my core strength and stability and introduced nerve stretches. Despite going to the gym and going to Pilates my core strength was non existant. My gym work stopped and I only did the programme I was set by Rob. I had a progression of gym programmes and with each appointment came more encouragement.

Soon there were less symptoms and I was swimming further and further without cramps. I began running again and mentally have fought a lot of demons and won!  It has been hard work and along the way Rob has not only been my Physiotherapist but he has also been a Counsellor at times and kept my head in the right place.

“Rob has not only been my Physiotherapist but he has also been a Counsellor at times and kept my head in the right place.”

To date I swim four  times per week, averaging four km per swim and now have no recurring cramping issues. I set a goal of swimming the length of Coniston Lake and I actually did it, all 5.5 miles without a wetsuit too. A fantastic achievement. I have also swam several 2-ways like Coniston and Ullswater with my Relay team Dover Souls in preparation for my next big challenge which is the English Channel. After that I head North to swim Loch Ness with another relay team in September.

Being treated by Harris & Ross has helped change me from being the woman that was limited by what had happened to being  the woman that will succeed in her challenges whether it’s a Channel Solo or and Ironman.

I no longer think like a patient I think like an athlete. I have now been given the knowledge and the understanding of my body to maintain an active lifestyle and cannot thank Harris & Ross enough.

“Being treated by Harris & Ross has helped change me from being the woman that was limited by what had happened to being  the woman that will succeed in her challenges whether it’s a Channel Solo or an Ironman.”

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