My mom was a laundress. Yes, she washed and ironed clothes for the elite for a living. I can recall how she would stand over a tub of hot water filled with suds from a soap named Duz. She also used OK soap to remove stubborn stains. She would scrub the clothes repeatedly against a washboard until they were snow white. She would then wring them with a forceful twist to get out the excess water before hanging them out on the line stretched from the second floor of our building to a pole in the back yard.
The wringing of the clothes put a strain on her wrists. Those beautiful hands that prepared meals, sewed on missing buttons and performed a host of other household duties began to experience numbness and pain, but she never complained. I used to see her sitting and rubbing one hand over the other repeatedly.
As a doctor, I know now that she was experiencing a common condition known as carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). This condition is caused by a compression of the median nerve, which leaves the spinal cord and travels down the arm. When it gets to the wrist, it has to go through a tunnel, which is made up of tissue. The nerve is distributed to the palm of the hand, thumb and three fingers next to the thumb. If this tunnel becomes inflamed and fills up with fluid, compression of the nerve occurs, which will lead to symptoms.
CTS is caused by repetitive movements of the wrist such as wringing out clothes, as my mom did, typing, excessive use of computer keyboards, excessive use of screwdrivers and other tools, piano playing, shucking oysters and clams and a host of other wrist operations.
CTS has been associated with diabetes, hypothyroidism, pregnancy, oral contraceptives, alcoholism, smoking, obesity and lack of exercise. Women are more affected than men, and the condition is rare among children. It is easily diagnosed with the use of electro-diagnostic studies-a study to see whether a nerve is conducting an impulse adequately from the wrist to the hand.
The treatment of CTS varies with its severity. Often a wrist splint to keep the wrist from moving, combined with a painkiller such as Tylenol or Motrin, can reduce the symptoms. This, however, does not cure the condition. It has been found that vitamin B6 (299 milligrams per day) can help. The injection of corticosteroids in the tunnel often helps to reduce the inflammation, thereby reducing compression of the nerve. If all medical approaches fail, surgery can be the answer, reducing the compression of the nerve.
My mom didn’t have all of these options and had to live with the condition. In reflection, I don’t know how the old folks did it. Imagine-with knee pain from standing and numb hands from wringing clothes, my mom could still smile, cook, sew and hug her grandchildren.
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