Surgery for a torn rotator cuff suffered while hiking the Colorado Trail led Dean Krakel to try marijuana for pain relief during his recovery. (Courtesy of Dean Krakel)

Breaking free from pain and finding my lost mojo, thanks to cannabis: A healing epiphany

An outdoors enthusiast waylaid by depressing post-surgery recovery looks to marijuana for pain relief

Editor’s note: This is the second part of an essay on using cannabis during recovery from a debilitating hiking injury and subsequent surgery. Check out Part One here

The pain begins as a slight thrumming at the base of my left wrist. Buzzing up the underside of my forearm, it electrifies my poor torn bicep and sets my shoulder afire. I imagine a small leering gargoyle perched there.

Back in the bad old days, I’d pop a prescription Percocet to tame the pain horse. Now I put a cannabis-infused topical on my left wrist to calm things down. If the pain stays crazy, I’ll take a small hit of shatter from a vape pen. That always works.

Three months out from rotator cuff and bicep surgery, a bout of intense pain still occasionally surprises me. Generally it happens at night. Usually it’s bantamweight and short-lived. These days I am mostly pain-free. Three or four times a week I do aggressive physical therapy. I’m trail running again, albeit slowly, doing light workouts, pumping iron with a manly five pounds.

On those days or nights when I’m not feeling so pain-free, I treat it naturally.

When I tell people I’m using cannabis to deal with post-surgical pain, there are always some eye-rollers. Like, “Oh, sure.” Several of my friends assume I’m so self-medicated, I’m stoned whenever I’m talking to them.

No one has said it’s not a good idea. I mean, we’ve all heard the stories. Still, there’s more than a hint of stigma that it’s marijuana, and even though it’s legal here in Colorado and a good conversation piece, for a 63-year-old guy, and an athletic kind of guy, to really use it therapeutically? Well, hmmmm.

Post-surgery recovery and using marijuana for pain
Dean Krakel takes a selfie at home with one arm immobilized after shoulder surgery. (Courtesy of Dean Krakel)

Not so long ago, the aftermath of rotator-cuff surgery involved a short hospital stay and morphine. These days a patient gets sewn up and sent home straight away to heal up with prescription drugs. Percocet. Norco. Vicodin. Tramadol.

What the eye-rollers forget — and many of them had undergone their various surgeries and taken various painkillers to recover — is that those pills are narcotics. Synthetic opiates. Pharmaceutical-grade heroin. And they all come with a long list of unpleasant side effects: lowered heartbeat, fainting, confusion, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, seizures, itching, loss of appetite, constipation, jaundice, depression, addiction. And sometimes death.

By the time I walked into a dispensary in late December, I was hooked on Percocets. I’d been taking them since September, when I fell while backpacking solo on The Colorado Trail and I’d begun taking even more of them after surgery in November.

I couldn’t sleep at night without them and I couldn’t sleep during the day because of them. My attention span was nonexistent. While it was true they killed the pain, they were also killing forward momentum. Percs had become a habit I had to break.

When I entered the dispensary for the first time, I found myself overwhelmed by the selection of strain-filled jars and colorful packages of edibles, concentrates and other products. I explained to the budtender who greeted me that I was looking for something to help with pain. That much was obvious: I was still wearing the oppressive black pillow sling that kept my injured arm immobilized — the black badge of bad shoulder juju.

Producing a tiny plastic tub from under the counter, she opened the lid and unwrapped a bean-sized agate of something hard and honey colored. Shatter, she explained, is the distilled essence of super-potent cannabis flowers, and it’s highly regarded for its pain-killing properties. Just chip off a bit and vape it, she said.

She went on to mention something about the percentage of healing CBN and CBD cannabinoids in this particular brand of shatter in relationship to its THC high-inducing cannabinoids. So I bought it — along with a small vape pen, a couple of types of topicals, some patches and edible gummies.

That night, when the pain came on, I dabbed the topical oil on my aching wrist, loaded the vape with a chunk of the shatter and took a hit so big my lungs hurt after exhaling.

I shot off like a rocket.

I was lying in bed, propped upright by a half-dozen pillows and watching a bad Western on my laptop. Suddenly another movie started in my head. It was like being at a drive-in with the sound turned off and way more interesting than whatever I’d been watching. Good lord. I’d smoked pot before but I’d never hallucinated. After awhile whatever I’d overdone leveled out and got better.

And thankfully, the pain went away. After that, I began using more and more of the topical oil and smoking more and more of the shatter — in very tiny increments after my first learning experience — and swallowing fewer and fewer of the pills. You don’t just quit narcotics by stopping. There were still withdrawal symptoms as I tapered down. I had headaches. I got the chills. I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t an easy or short process, but eventually I weaned myself from the Percocets.

What I noticed most about switching to cannabis was that my desire to do things returned. I didn’t wake up feeling drugged, sluggish and sleepy, depressed and out of the loop. I didn’t want to just lie around in bed. Rather than just taking away the pain and making me stupidly high, the shatter was energizing. I felt as if my mind was functioning again. My forward momentum returned and I wanted to get back outdoors. I also slept better once off the painkillers.

Does cannabis really makes that big of a difference in pain management? I have to say, for me, yes. I could never tell if the patches or edibles worked. But the topicals and shatter did the trick and in good ways, in ways I hadn’t imagined.

Endorphins will always be my drug of choice. Getting high during a run, ride or workout. Being outside. Getting physical. Doing something hard. Nothing will ever replace that. And that’s where I am now. Out there every day that I can be, harvesting endorphins. I truly believe that cannabis helped me get back to my normal life and passions.

Hiking in Colorado foothills
Dean Krakel gets outside for a hike in the Colorado foothills after shoulder surgery. He’s on the lookout for a mountain lion after seeing one in the area the previous day. (Courtesy of Dean Krakel)