Injury -- What Injury? Fighting the Pain

Photog Ryan McGeeney and gymnast Kerri Strug both toughed out their injuries.

May 21, 2008 — -- Not even getting a javelin lodged in his leg could stop Utah photojournalist Ryan McGeeney from snapping a photograph of his incredible -- and gruesome -- injury.

The Ogden, Utah, newspaper photographer was covering a high school track championship on Saturday when he got a little too close to the action near the javelin throw event, according to the Associated Press.

While he sat in an area that was off limits to journalists, the tip of a javelin thrown by one of the competitors punctured McGeeney's right leg just below his knee and went straight through to the other side, according to the report.

"I was very lucky that it didn't hit any blood vessels, nerves, ligaments or tendons," McGeeney, who declined to speak directly to, told his own paper, the Standard-Examiner.

Thirteen stitches later, McGeeney is expected to make a full recovery. His photo of the ghastly injury appeared in his paper and others across the country this week.

"It was pretty embarrassing," McGeeney told the paper. "I just felt like a jackass. I wasn't scared. You can tell right away when you're hurt really bad. I just knew I wasn't really injured."

"It wasn't real painful," he said.

But that may not be totally true. Doctors familiar with traumatic injuries told ABC News McGeeney's body likely went through a physical reaction that blocked or drew his attention away from the pain, rather than actually eliminating it.

Athletes Feel Adrenaline Rush

McGeeney is far from the only person to fight through an injury. Perhaps one of the most notable instances of perseverance during a painful injury was American gymnast Kerri Strug's performance in the 1996 Olympics.

Strug, 18 at the time, helped her team capture a gold medal by nailing a crucial vault -- with a broken ankle.

"In certain situations, you're able to do things that, in normal situations, you wouldn't be able to," Strug told "Yes, my ankle hurt, but I think the will took over the pain."

During her first try at the vault, she had injured her ankle so severely that the gymnast later said she could barely feel her leg before the second attempt. She managed to push through the injury -- and onto the medal podium -- anyway.

"Looking back 12 years later, I have no idea how I did that," added Strug, who now works in the office of juvenile justice in Washington, D.C. "I think it was the adrenaline rush."

She's probably right.

Emergency medicine professionals told that toughing out bad injuries like McGeeney and Strug did is not unusual and is often the result of a strong adrenaline rush that makes the pain seem to disappear.

Injury, What Injury?

While it may be hard for some to imagine how Strug could have flipped and flopped her way to Olympic fame on a broken ankle, or how McGeeney could have had a clear enough mind to document his own bloody leg, doctors say that many victims of accidents don't realize they are hurt for quite some time after the normally-painful incident occurs.

"When a severe injury happens, the body's adrenal glands secrete epinephrine, a hormone, that then increases blood pressure and heart rate, which helps the person suffering the injury run away or stay alive," said Richard O'Brien, an emergency doctor at Pennsylvania's Moses Taylor Hospital, and a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians

"It also gives you a runner's high kind of feeling, which is why I've seen people who don't notice the pain or injury until they calm down," he said.

Dr. Alasdair K.T. Conn, the chief of emergency services at Massachusetts General Hospital, said he treated two individuals who walked away from a subway accident, only to later find that they both had broken necks.

"Patients get caught up in the moment. They have this sort of adrenaline rush and they just don't feel pain for a few hours," said Conn. "It's almost sort of disassociated from their body until they settle down.

"They kept saying they were fine or 'I have a bit of neck pain,'" said Conn. "They didn't feel the pain."

"It's amazing," he added.

Often, patients will seek medical attention for one injury without knowing they have another -- and sometimes much more serious -- injury elsewhere.

For example, Conn said he once treated a man who had fallen and broken his wrist and was in agony over the pain in his arm -- again, so much so that he did not feel the pain of a broken neck.

"That's the classic example of a distracting injury," said Conn. "Yes, you have more than one injury, but one is more painful than the other, and the adrenaline of the moment causes your pain threshold to go up."

Distraction: The Best Pain Killer

"Distraction from pain is well established in medicine," said O'Brien. "I've had a young woman who had both a broken neck and broken femur, who didn't notice her neck pain because the leg fracture was so intensely painful."

Several doctors told that the body's natural instinct is to fight -- even during the most excruciating pain -- or divorce themselves from their wounds.

"There are these moments that have windows where that serious injury can be overcome," said Dr. Stephen Hargarten, professor and chair of emergency medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "The pain part of it is related to the body's extraordinary ability to manage pain in the way of producing endorphins, which are our own bodies' pain meds, and the adrenaline, which helps us fight to stay alive."

"The adrenaline rush is a real thing," added O'Brien. "The desire or drive to stay alive and stay conscious can indeed block pain perception."