Monday, November 06, 2006

in praise of opposable thumbs

Those who've spent any time in the same physical space as me have noticed I have a thumb thing... actually, it's a complete lack of respect for my own thumbs.

Or, what's left of them. I've joined an elite group of folks who can count to ten by half-digit increments. Actually, that's not true. I can only make it to 9.5, thanks to a rather unfortunate (read: dumb) run-in with a fast-spinning motorcycle chain when I was 20.

So, my left thumb ends in a nice smooth curve at the end of the first phalanx (at the knuckle), thanks to the skillful surgical handiwork for Dr John D Smoot, the plastic surgeon on call that day at Scripps Medical Center. The second phalanx (thumb bone) and its tell-tale thumb nail are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry... (Clementine)

For the longest time, I went through life half a thumb down and thought that was the worst it could get. Then, on a crisp August morning in 2001, I was a little overzealous trying to pull a flag during flag football practice and managed to tear in two the ulnar colateral ligament (UCL) in my right thumb... what had, until that point, been my "good" thumb. I now have a two inch scar at the V between thumb and forefinger indicating where they drilled a hole through my first phalanx to reattach the UCL. It's been over five years now, but I still don't have my full grasping power on my right hand (or my left, for that matter).

All this is back story for why I'm writing about thumbs today. I spent all day yesterday building a retaining wall to keep the dirt under our concrete patio from washing away in the winter rains. As part of building the wall, I used a post-hole digger to dig eleven post holes into the clay and rock below our patio.

I was prepared for sore muscles after this effort, I just had no idea how much my forearms would hurt from post-holing. Specifically, the muscles that flex when you grasp a handle: the abductor pollicis longus and extensors pollicis longus. These are the two muscles that traverse from the back to the front of your fore-arm just above your watch band. I never realized just how much I use them until I strained them post-holing yesterday. Even this morning, my left pollicis longus (longi? longa?) are swollen and fiery.

Just another reminder at how useful it is to have opposable thumbs (what's left of them)... and a sharp reminder I need to respect them a bit more if I plan to keep them working as best they can until I take my last breath.

A blurb from Massage Today caught my eye while self-diagnosing this morning via Google (can we call is google-nosing?).
We have two sesamoid bones associated with our first metacarpophalangeal joint. These bones serve as attachments of thenar muscles. The abductor pollicis brevis and flexor pollicis brevis attach to the lateral sesamoid and the proximal phalanx, while the two heads of the adductor pollicis attach to the medial sesamoid and the proximal phalanx. Both of these attachments continue on to the extensor hood, as well. It seems that over evolutionary time, some carnivore taxa had a more developed lateral sesamoid bone. This developed into a large sesamoid bone, as seen today in the Giant Pandas. Other mammals, like the raccoon, have sophisticated grasping function, but not nearly as sophisticated as ours.
Perhaps those not as intimately familiar with degraded thumb power aren't as enthralled with the anatomical bits as I am... but trust me when I say the folks at Massage Today couldn't have picked a better closer than this:
Take good care of your thumbs. They serve you well.

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