I am a James Madison University lacrosse player. I was a two sport, four year varsity athlete in high school walking away with multiple accolades and yet, my legs burn, ache and go numb when I run. My name is Brittany Bill and I am telling my story to help others, and to find others, to connect with who may be experiencing this same rare, poorly understood condition. I have been diagnosed with Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome (CECS) and Functional Popliteal Artery Entrapment Syndrome (FPAES).
I began my freshman year of high school thriving on the Varsity Field Hockey and Lacrosse teams- rare for a Group IV large and competitive high school. I was even talking with D1 lacrosse coaches at this early point in my athletic career. I felt at the top of my game. However, during my sophomore year I began to feel an intense burning and numbing sensation in my calves and quads that was so debilitating that I couldn’t finish a lap around the track without collapsing. After what felt like an eternity - two long years of multiple doctor appointments - I was diagnosed with Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome (CECS). I was ecstatic! Finally, a diagnosis! I wasn’t going crazy after all, the pain was real. The road to get to this diagnosis wasn’t easy. This condition is rare and poorly understood. I visited doctors at very prestigious hospitals in New York City and Philadelphia, missing a lot of school and with each unsuccessful visit I became more and more frustrated. Most doctors had no idea what was going on and many made me feel as if this was all in my head. Some of the inappropriate responses from these “top doctors” were “see a psychologist”, “maybe you have something like cancer or MS”, or “quit running”. As a 16 year old this was overwhelming. Do you know how many sleepless nights that led to? Too dang many.
CECS is when the fascia, or layer around your muscles, is too tight and is not able to expand when the muscles try to contract. I continued to play through the pain during my sophomore and junior year of high school, following a pattern. Go into the game and play for 10-12 minutes, run off the field, collapse onto the ground and into my coaches arms and cry. Then after about 5 minutes I’d be able to pop back up, go in, and do it again. This is because the blood flow would resume in my legs.
I had a bilateral fasciotomy in four compartments of both calves to release the pressures in my legs in November of 2016. I came back with a vengeance and was ready for lacrosse season when I noticed the pain was still there. So I did the only thing I knew. I played through the pain. My coaches tried to help, but the only thing on my mind was JMU. What would they think of their commit? Is she not mentally tough? Is she not strong enough to play through a little pain? That's the thing though. It wasn't just a little pain. It had gotten to the point where it wasn’t only affecting me physically, but also mentally. From the outside I was still the overachieving athlete, winning awards and performing above average on the field. But on the inside -pain and fear.
I played through my senior year and went into the fall of my freshman year at college with constant butterflies. Over the summer I had been retested for CECS and my pressures all came back normal. The compartment syndrome was “gone,” but it sure didn’t feel gone.
Our trainer at JMU is unbelievable. She has helped me to manage and balance the pain with my play. My mom had connected with another student athlete who had experienced the same symptoms while playing lacrosse at Michigan and she connected us with yet another doctor, this time in Roanoke, Virginia. She said “he was willing to listen to athletes”, and he has been one of the most supportive doctors I’ve met with. He diagnosed me with Functional Popliteal Artery Entrapment Syndrome which often goes along with CECS. This is when the gastroc muscle compresses the artery behind your knee and stops the blood flow.
Not only was I feeling this burn during practice and while running, but while lifting, walking around campus, and getting to my dorm. This made every single day so. dang. long. I struggled physically and mentally. I started getting Botox shots in the back of my knees in December of 2018 to atrophy the muscle compressing my arteries. I couldn’t move for about two weeks and that immediately shut down my hopes. But after these few weeks I started running, and I had relief! No pain! But my excitement was quickly shot down when I returned to JMU in the spring for lacrosse season. I started running and it was back. So what did I do? Played through it. After 3 months we decided to try another Botox shot. However, this one provided a solid 3 days of relief and then the pain returned. My first lacrosse season at JMU was most definitely not how I planned, but I want to be there, I want to play with all of my heart and I want to provide value to the team. The struggle has been hard but my coaches, trainers, and amazing counselors have made life and lacrosse so much more enjoyable. I can never thank them enough.
I’m not sure where my journey will continue to go, but I’m positive that I will play through any challenge in order to achieve the success in lacrosse that I desire. I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I have been referred to a Musculoskeletal Radiologist at the Cleveland Clinic and I am hopeful we will be able to pinpoint exactly where my artery compression is taking place in my legs and then treat them appropriately. We are on the right path but it is taking time.
I know that I am not the only athlete going through a frustrating injury. I have faced pain and disappointment, both physically and emotionally. I urge anyone going through similar challenges, no matter what the injury is, to consider not only the physical treatments but address the emotional challenges with counseling. I’m not afraid to expose the vulnerable side of my injury in hopes of showing others that they’re not alone.
There have been some amazing moments and positives coming from all of this. The multiple medical tests exposed me to professional fields I didn’t know existed, and I’m now studying Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science so that I can help other athletes. Given what I learned from some of the doctors that were not so positive, I’ll take a more empathetic approach and go above and beyond to ensure athletes feel supported and heard. The doctors who did believe in me, my coaches, trainers, friends, family, and teammates have been so overwhelmingly supportive when times were hard. I would not have made it through this journey thus far without them and wish I could give them the world. They make every single day possible for me and I don’t know what I would do without them. As for my story, stay tuned. I will continue to climb mountains and can’t wait for my time to shine.