Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Knitting and RSI

My long blog silence so soon after starting is due to this an injury that at any point in time any knitter has feared: repetitive strain injury. It sounds so innocuous and a little silly to those who have not experienced it, but it can be truly frightening.

After my attempt to join the sock a month club at the LYS, Knitty Couture, I did manage to get a pair of socks done for February after many retries and knitting right down to the deadline. My forearms were hurting me a little, but I thought that after I finished that pair I would just slow down and I would be fine in a week. First bad decision: knitting even though it was hurting.

So, I slowed down. A lot. In fact stopped for the first two weeks of March. Only problem was, my forearms weren't feeling any better, and I was having problems holding and squeezing things. Each day it became worse, probably because I use my hands so much in the lab and for typing at work. I was finally at the point when even if my hands were still, I was in pain. Out to the doctor I went, and after four days of wearing a fiberglass brace on my forearms, I could pick up and squeeze out my own shampoo (thanks to my dedicated, loving husband I did get clean every day my arm was in the brace). My poor muscles were not as swollen, but this was not the end of the issue. I saved all hand movement for my job activities; since my husband was about to graduate with no job in sight, I did not want to go on disability as the primary earner. Slowly, the pain disappated. After a month, I decided that I would try knitting again.

I could feel it, the first few times I tried to knit again. The pain was coming back. Something was not right. I searched and found people whose doctors told them to take 4, 6, even 8 months off knitting. I did a lot of crying, thinking that I would never be able to knit again, never be able to follow through on my design ideas and be able to do the thing that had brought me so much joy. I had to go see a specialist, an orthopedic surgeon, a hand doctor.

The doctor told me that he thought I had radial tunnel syndrome. It is like carpal tunnel, just a different nerve/spot on your arm. He prescribed physical therapy. For those that don't know, carpal and radial tunnel occur when there is a repetitive motion that causes damage to the nerve. Normally, the nerve can heal itself after a day or so; however, I had done enough damage that the nerve couldn't heal itself, and it was causing my muscles to turn into a bunch of knots that were very painful and did not help reduce the constriction on the nerve or my ability to hold items, since the muscles were already engaged.

The first thing was to get rid of a majority of the knots and bring the muscles back to baseline/resting, which took about two weeks. Then I did strengthening exercises to build up new, smooth muscle so the scarred tissue wouldn't damage the nerves as much. It turns out that I was much, much weaker than I should have been for the amount of work I do with my hands. Turns out the rest of me was also much weaker than I should have been for my age/gender. I went to the physical therapist for a month, and then got the okay from the doctor that I was good to continue physical therapy on my own for the next month. My advice to all: exercise regularly. It will speed recovery for many injuries that you might obtain when you are stronger all over.

After doing physical therapy on my own for a month, I tried knitting again. Very little, 10 minutes a day. After about 5 days of this I began to get knots again and freaked out a little. Was it starting over from the beginning? I went back to the physical therapist, who told me to take care of them like I had before, and to make sure I treated knitting like weight lifting, so I had a day of rest or two in between. So I began again; 15 minutes every third day for the first week, 20 minutes every third day for the second, increasing as I went along.

The project is one I've done before, a huggable hedgehog for a new baby. It is going slow as slow, but worsted weight makes it faster that the laceweight shawl I'll start soon. Ideally, in a month and a half I will work up to an hour every other day, although I have been warned that no more than an hour a day should be spent knitting.

This makes me sad that I will not be able to do anything associated with knitting full time (at least anytime soon). However, I am glad that this injury has inspired me to take better care of myself through both nutrition and exercise. I never thought I would be able to do 20 pushups (real, military style pushups mind you). I never thought I would be back down to my 'skinny' high school weight (which I must say, was not that small but smaller than I started off at the beginning of this year). This will lead to some rethinking of the sweater I was planning, which will take some of my knitting interest time and put it into not actually knitting (good until I can knit more regularly).

Overall, it has been scary. Scary, but it has helped my balance my life better. I thought it might be helpful to share this experience, so people would realize they are not alone and they can recover, although it is a long process and may not be smooth. It is also a warning to the rest of the knitters out there, to pay attention to your body. You've only got one.

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