Exercising to Get Healthy? Wrestling With My Hands

It’s been  couple of years since I tried to get my stamina and exercise routine up to a really healthy level.  Before the world got turned upside down with all the stress and chaos of family emergencies — I was using resistance bands to great success.  I felt better.  I had more energy.  I was more flexible….

No, this is not me.

No, this is not me.

The resistance band stuff does exactly what it claims to do — it BUILDS MUSCLE!

And the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn — even at rest.  It’s a really successful formula — and pays off in feeling better and being more resilient.

Fast forward to this last summer.  My right hand lost almost all the connective tissue in the major joints that connect my thumb to my hand — the same nerves that run up the outside of the arm, through the elbow, and into the back.  Who knew?

handjoints

And without the connective tissue — cartilage and ligaments — wrapped around that nerve, it was squeezed between the two bones that intersected in the joint every time I moved my hand.  Even worse, once the joints became inflamed from being worked aggressively (as I tried to continue my normal activities) without the cushion of hand/thumb joints, the nerve was/is being grated and ground between bones with every grip and grasp of my hand.   And — right in the middle of that joint is where the nerve bundle rests that stretches from the hand, up the arm and across the shoulder.

the joint capsule in question....

the joint capsule in question....

I went to see my doctor, and sure enough, even in x-rays, the degeneration of the connective tissue in/around the joint-capsule was too obvious to ignore.  He sent me to a hand specialist who pulled the joint apart enough to fill the space around the effected nerve/joint-capsule with cortisone, the way it is often injected between the vertebrae when disks have been compressed or damaged.  Evidently, this procedure can be done as often as every 3 months if it offers relief.  In many ways, the issue of whether it helps or not remains to be seen, because the young assistant to the hand specialist who injected the cortisone into my hand made a significant error — and it was nearly 2 weeks before I could move my hand at all without screaming. This error reinforces how complex hands are to work on.   And since orthopedic surgeons all seem to think that if they can cut into something — they can fix it — of course, each of the ortho-helpers I’ve seen has carefully outlined all the possible things that can be done surgically if the cortisone does not do the job. (which it only occasionally does.)

nerves of the hand, into arm/shoulder

nerves of the hand, into arm/shoulder

They can cut into that sealed joint capsule and remove some of the bone that is scraping and pinching the nerve — in hopes it will grow scar tissue.  Ideally, the new scar tissue will provide some of the cushioning previously provided by cartilage and ligaments.  This — one of the specialist’s assistants told me — only works for a few people.  And, since the nerves are integrated into the tissue that forms the capsule for this joint, it often happens that the nerves themselves are cut in the process.  (!)  I suppose that would keep the whole thing from hurting — but it seems a little radical.

It’s also a little alarming that going in surgically, specifically to cut the offending (or offended ?) nerves is actually considered an option. (!!)

Wrist-Thumb-Splint-LG

In addition to the syringe full of cortisone, I was given velcro-adjustable splints for both my hands to prevent me from using them when they are inflamed, and to keep me from aggravating the inflammation accidentally during the night.

I wore the casts consistently for over 4 months, and now that the joints are “cooling down” — I only wear them when there is extreme vulnerability.

They are a little like wearing steel gauntlets, as there are steel plates running the length of the hand/wrist in 3 places.  –Like really extreme brass knuckles, but on the wrong side of the knuckles so that only the wearer gets hurt.

It took about 5 months for me to learn to habitually lighten the load on my hands.

My hands have always been outrageously strong.  If there was a jar that couldn’t be opened — I could do it.  I built pieces of furniture with my gross motor agility, and did fine motor work just as well.

I knitted every evening.  I cooked, kneaded bread, made fresh pasta — and at my shop, I lifted heavy boxes and moved product at the same rate and with the same energy that my guys/employees did.

To stop doing those things — even the simple things like opening jars, stirring thick pots of stew, and twisting a pepper mill — was a really difficult transition.  It was much less difficult once I finally got the message that even one slip would leave me aching with some of the most severe nerve pain — from knuckles to shoulder — I’d ever felt.  I tried to finish a knitting project for a friend, and ended up with 2 heating pads (on my hand-to-elbow, and my elbow-to-shoulder) for hours — for days — and that was the last time I picked up my knitting.

I have reduced my cooking to simple maneuvers.   I tend to cook veggies that come in those steamer bags from the freezer section.  I tend to eat fruits that don’t have to be peeled, cut, or seeded.  I cook most meals in my rice cooker, crock pot, bread machine, pressure cooker, and countertop grill.  I can chop veggies and other ingredients, but I work very slowly and deliberately at a table, instead of leaning on a knife for the fast and furious chopping at the stove.  I avoid ground meat dishes where the meat has to be browned (and stirred) extensively.  My soups are clearer — and my husband is good at stirring.  I don’t try to drain pasta from heavy pots of boiling water. (I did that once in the last 6 months, and poured boiling water all over my stove because my grip vanished in mid-lift….)

I don’t get dressed the same way.  I don’t type the same way.  I don’t paint the same way.

I don’t pick up my water glass the same way.  I don’t drive the same way.

Everything I do with my hands has changed.

And during those first months, when I wore a cast only on my right hand to keep me from using it — my left hand did so much more work to make up for the loss that it degenerated into the same bad condition as the right.

How does all this matter to fitness?

I can’t grasp the ends of the resistance bands to do that type of exercise any more.  The very act of gripping and grasping implies holding something with the opposition of thumb and hand.  And holding a RESISTANCE band means grasping something that is fighting back.  Because a resistance band RESISTS — you have to hold tighter.

My second choice for exercise — a bicycle — is out for the same reason.  Holding handlebars — leaning on handlebars (leaning on my hands anywhere and for any reason!) is torture. This also takes 75-80% of exercise machines out of the picture.  So normal fitness routines at a gym are out.  It also takes out any kind of floor exercise that requires leaning or pushing against the hands — like push-ups, or even back-flexing presses.

What’s more — any kind of exercise that puts me in danger of falling and landing on my hands is also out!  That would be roller skating, skiing etc.  Not to mention the consideration that what is happening to my hands is probably also beginning to happen to other joints, and so serious high-IMPACT exercises are out — especially since I am, as they say, not a kid anymore (and clumsy enough to fall with little or no provocation.  That would include jumping, running, and bouncing exercises.  All out.

I‘ve also been a big proponent of the Nintendo Wii game platform for several years now.  Tennis and bowling are my favorites — and I’ve gotten very good at those, as well as scores of mini carnival and party games, dance games, and regular board and strategy games.  The problem is — the Wii requires that you hold a Wii controller.  This means not only a grip/grasp — but then using the fingers/thumb to press buttons at the same time — and every single push of the buttons hurts.

So I’m running out of ideas.

I can walk.  Okay.  But not outside because of my asthma and allergies.    I can do some of the dance programs on the Wii.  Okay.   Or, I can just dance on my own….

None of that gets me the muscle-building effects of resistance bands.  But okay.

I looked at these passive resistance machines that do “sonic” or “whole body vibration” — but the best that can be said for those is that the jury is still waaaaay out on them. Of the top 5 companies that make them, the claims go from sensible all the way to outrageous — with little or no evidence to support any claims at all.  Nobody has actually tested them in any scientific way, and yet they all claim to do everything from providing a relaxing massage, to building bone density and curing major auto-immune diseases.

In fact, I looked at every piece of non-snake-oil gym equipment I could find — and if it rows, pushes, pulls, lifts, or twists — it’s automatically off the list.  What’s left after that is basically a bench.

I’d never noticed that almost every exercise out there — including the mundane everyday things like pushing a vacuum cleaner, or pulling weeds in the garden starts with the ability to grip and grasp with the hands.  I had always had a basic understanding of how difficult it would be to write with a pen, or paint with a brush, or eat with a spoon — if you couldn’t hold on to small things.  I’ve got those things covered, though.  I can hold a cup and drink from it.  I can peck out what I want to say on any keyboard.

But everything we do involves the hands.  I suddenly find myself remembering The Best Years of Our Lives.  Not to mention all the photos of people who have lost hands in war, or lost use of hands in fire or catastrophe.

And it makes me regret not taking better care with them.  Nobody ever told me this was even possible — that just from use, overuse, and abuse — this many choices would go up in smoke at once.  I always figured that my excess weight might seriously damage my knees or hips or something.  Or that my general clumsiness might result in a fall that would injure me in some way.  But my hands?  Nobody ever mentioned HANDS.

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3 thoughts on “Exercising to Get Healthy? Wrestling With My Hands

  1. I’ve tried yoga several times in the past, but cast it aside during the store years because I was always interrupted by the 24hr phone duty. It might make sense to try again now that I can turn the phone off for extended periods…. I’ll see what Jim thinks. Maybe it’s something we could do together.

    • Lynn I just read your blog and wow… I had that weird feeling of ‘misery loves company’ as I was reading it…. I’m even currently wearing the very splint that you showed a photo of ! That splint rocks!!! Sorry you have to go through this stuff. I’ve been dealing with the same thing in my right hand since 2008, and all those little activities of daily living you mentioned have indeed been through major make-overs for me, and I’ve had to relearn to write with my left hand. In my case the chaos at the CMC joint and radial nerve resulted from a surgery to my thumb that was improperly done (but against everyone’s advice I decided not to take legal action because it is enough energy to try to re-define a functional content lifestyle!! I can do yoga only if I have my knuckles on the mat because bending it at the wrist on the mat would be … well it sounds like you can only imagine. I did rock climbing for 10 years and had to stop that, which suprisingly I’m OK with, and have found good times in hiking, skiing, dancing, WII dancing, rollerblading, ice-skating, treadmilling. The one thing that I cannot tolerate that I really struggle with is my passion for playing the banjo, which I am still emotionally trying to find creative ways around. (I can play one song with my left hand and right foot!) Anyway, feel free to email me crisheed@yahoo.com! -SaMaNtHa

  2. What about yoga or tai chi? I was in the best shape of my life doing yoga (not martial arts or farmwork, but *yoga*), and tai chi is also a great workout, and the hands are required to remain relaxed during it (Relaxed hands are a major principal of tai chi, if I recall correctly). You may also have to work around your knees, and I’m sure some yogic poses are out, due to hand use and pretzel-i-ness, but they’re both such great applications of energy and meditation techniques.

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