When, in the years following my two strokes and release from the hospital, I slowly began to realize that I was not going to be able to regain the use of my left arm and hand (barring a miracle in the field of stem cell technology), I knew in the back of my mind that someday my right arm would someday begin to suffer the wear and tear of overuse. When you only have one arm to lift, carry, scrub, push, and pull things…not to mention all the other little things we do during the day that I’m not covering…well, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that it can’t pick up the slack for the other arm forever without having complications.
I had envisioned those complications coming after I’d had kids, or somewhere further down the line, but they’re showing up in force now. And it’s not just the arm, but unexpected pains in the leg as well. Your injured/paralyzed leg gets back to work faster than the arm because of the weight-bearing we do on them constantly throughout the day. Weight-bearing exercises are the best thing we can do for our injured limbs, as they keep them stretched and wake everything back up (both in the limb and the brain).
Take it from me: if you’re released from therapy, where you had a therapist forcing you to do weight-bearing with your arm in order to keep it stretched out…I know it sucked, and when you’re at home you’d rather not torture yourself, but the muscles in your arm will shorten faster than you’ll believe, and before you know it, you won’t be able to get your elbow straight anymore, much less reach your arm out.
I’ll admit it – I got complacent. I saw the hour I’d spend in therapy heating my arm, stretching, doing weight-bearing, using the arm-bicycle thingy. And the little reward that came from the work: being able to walk down the hall at the end of the session, Koosh ball in hand, and after much concentration, be able to will the fingers to release their grasp juuust enough for the ball to fall out. For a former piano player, having such little control over my left arm and hand was maddening enough to want to just ignore the damn thing. So I did, and now I pay for it.
My left shoulder had been dislocated and ultimately developed subluxation after an inattentive nurse – who apparently missed the class about not pulling on a stroke survivor’s injured arm – ignored my warnings not to pull that arm, and did just that. Mom walked in the room (the ONE time she left me alone) just in time to see her yank my arm and hear me scream out in pain. For those of you who know my mom – you know why that must have gone down as one of that nurse’s least favorite days. Mom let loose on her: “How could you not know not to pull a stroke-injured arm??!! What’s wrong with you??!! We’ve never had this problem; I want to speak to your supervisor!” It wasn’t pretty. But considering I had asked her not to pull it…even raising my voice as high as I could for the first time…once we got the X-ray confirming it was dislocated, I had no sympathy for her subjection to Mom’s wrath.
Since then, my left shoulder has suffered degenerative arthritis, and the occasional pinched nerve because of the way the subluxation has messed up the joint’s positioning. When my left hip began giving me problems a few years ago, I easily identified it as more degenerative arthritis, as it felt very similar. My doctor sent me for an X-ray, which confirmed my suspicions: both joints had degenerative arthritis…yay!
Then, just a couple years ago, I started noticing on my more active days that after running errands or doing a lot of walking my right hip would start bothering me, especially if I was favoring it. Then the worst happened: In the grocery store one day my right hip and knee hurt so badly I could hardly bend down to get something off the bottom shelf.
Ugh, my therapists had warned me about this…and I hate it when they’re right! In June 2010 I had what was basically a 4-in-1 foot and leg surgery. I was finally sick enough of all the pain I endured when walking from the kicking in foot and curling under toes that I was ready for the invasive surgery I had always put off. They went in and lengthened my Achilles (if that made you shudder, just wait); performed what’s called a “splat”: where they take the tendon on the top of your foot which is causing it to kick inward, split it in half and wrap the other half around the other way (essentially making it work with the spasticity to make your foot lay flat…HAHA, foot!); and finally they lengthened the muscles under my toes and fused that bastard big toe straight with a screw. I had suggested a Lincoln Log…but the screw works fine.
Well, despite a very painful six-month-long recovery (your doctor is lying to you when he says it could take three…it’ll be closer to six), the surgery was worth it, as I was finally able to walk barefoot without a brace again! No more having to put on a brace and shoes to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night! For the girl who had gone everywhere barefoot her whole life, this was all I wanted. I couldn’t care less about still using the cane (at least in public, so people don’t run over me)…THE BRACE WAS GONE!!
Then I got to therapy, with physical therapists – the ultimate downer. They explained that without the brace, I was dipping my right knee when I would take a step with the left, in order to get my left heel on the ground. Over time that could give me problems with my right knee. Would I consider wearing a brace again, to help get that heel down without my right knee dipping?
“WHAT??!! Kiss my ass!! I just got rid of that damn thing, now you want to ruin my shoe possibilities all over again?! Not just no, but HELL NO!!” I used one of their smaller braces when I was at therapy, and yes (groan), it did help get the heel down more easily, but I absolutely refused to get another brace. And here we are: 6 years after the surgery the knee pain begins. The day before yesterday it was giving me more pain than my two shoulders, which were already hurting. Today I’m back to my right shoulder being the most painful. There are rarely days when nothing hurts.
My point to all (especially those recovering from a brain injury, or illness, or who have been inactive) is to take care of your body and your joints, and to keep it as healthy and mobile as possible by being as active as you can. I run into new troubles now just trying to do that. A year after my strokes I was able to do my Pilates (albeit modified a bit) fairly easily; and after the leg and foot surgery I was excited to find I could grab that bad left foot and stretch the bastard back, getting a better stretch in that leg. Then I felt the first “clunk” as my left hip rather forcefully put itself back in the socket.
I was hoping that wouldn’t turn into a bigger problem, but I wound up having to remove the whole set of exercises where I lie on my side from my workout, as my left hip and knee slide around in their sockets as I kick my leg back and forth. The creepiest, of course, is feeling that hip clunk in and out, just knowing it could hurt later. Just the other night I learned I would have to once again modify an exercise, as I was finishing up my routine. I had both legs up in the air, making circles one way, and as I began making circles going the other way, it already felt wrong…but I kept going. Then it happened: CLUNK! I felt one of the more violent clunks I’ve felt as my left hip shifted over and back into the socket.
If you know me, then you know that the last thing I want for telling you all this is your sympathy. I tell you all of this in the hopes that you will not have to pay the price I’m paying for not taking better care of my body. We only get one body in this life, and it will eventually start to wear out – some faster than others. I’ve said many times, “if this is me at 31…I’m not looking forward to 61.” So no matter what your age or health, be as active as you can, take care of your weight, bones, and joints, because you could get to a time when you're finally trying to do just that, and your body won’t want to work with you.
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