O Bendy Gymster: The Range of Motion

The younger student held up a rack of tubes. “So should I give these a quick spin in the centrifuge?” she asked.

I counted. Five tubes. “Nah. Just a quick vortex to mix them, and then just give them each a flick.”

She frowned. “A flick?”

“Yeah, like this.” I picked up a tube, and flicked it with my wrist twice until the liquid settled cleanly in the bottom. I do use the centrifuge for things that really need to be spun – i.e., separating out layers, separating out supernatant, pelleting DNA – but if I’ve just given something a quick rattle on the vortex and want to make sure no liquid has been flung up into the lid, I just flick the tube.

(NB for non-lab types: You need to make sure there’s no liquid in the lid before you open the tube, because otherwise you’ll lose your reagent/sample/whatever when you open it, and then you may cry. Also, flicking the tube does not work for the really titchy 200ul tubes)

The student, who was both a hard worker and a quick study, picked up another tube and attempted to replicate my movement. Her wrist moved very slowly, like she was waving a pom-pom. The liquid in the tube didn’t shift in any appreciable or useful way.

I blinked. “Maybe a quick spin in the centrifuge,” I agreed.

Later, I turned to a colleague. “Do you flick your tubes?” I asked, curious. “Like this?” I picked up one of my samples from the bench and demonstrated.

My colleague gave me a blank look for a second, and then laughed. “No. How do you even do that?”

It wasn’t until a year later when my first physiotherapist bent my feet inwards…

“Tell me when it hurts.” “Sure.” “…no, really, tell me.” “But it doesn’t hurt.” “Aha!”

…that I discovered I was hypermobile and that my joints exhibit an extraordinary range of motion.

For the most part, that’s a bad thing. Being hypermobile means a greatly increased risk of injury (all the local physios know me well). It means it’s easy to overstretch. It’s easy to accumulate connective tissue damage which means it’s more likely that you will strain, sprain, wear and tear at that point in future. It means you don’t move right, and things hurt more, and most activities are far more tiring than they are for most people. Sometimes it means orthostatic issues with blood pressure, gut cramps (because there’s collagen in your intestines too, and that has consequences), and other less predictable effects.

But it’s not all bad.

I just got back from an extremely excellent field trip. On the last day, my foot slipped while descending a step-ladder from the top deck of a boat. Ironically, I’d been about to brace myself so someone could pass me a drum.

My foot slid out from under me, but I gripped the handrail; my flailing shoulder popped forward a little bit (little subluxation, but not full dislocation), yanking at the tendons; my weight landed on my wrist, which was hyperextended; the shoulder snapped back in, aching like a bastard; and I held.

If I wasn’t hypermobile, I probably wouldn’t have been able to catch myself before going arse over tit down onto the mid deck, doing myself far worse injury.

If I wasn’t hypermobile, the shoulder probably wouldn’t have stretched enough to go out and in again the way it did. It’s bad – in a broad sense – that this happened, and it’s probably done some unseen damage to the complex bits and pieces that make up the shoulder joint; but my shoulder is fine. It was fine within about ten minutes, and that’s held.

The wrist, though, turned out to be an injury, and I won’t be flicking any tubes for a while. It’s a very minor injury, but it’s where the muscle attaches to the ulna, so it will take longer to heal than it would if it had torn near the belly of the muscle.

The moves I have to avoid in order to allow healing?

Hyperextension in the rotation of my wrist.

What I’m learning now – and what I didn’t know before this latest injury – is how much I deliberately hyperextend my wrist.

Flicking tubes is just one thing.

I also use wrist hyperextension to increase the leverage when I open jars (I work in a museum. I open a lot of specimen jars).

When I’m driving, I use wrist hyperextension to get the wheel to turn further in a single movement (especially when backing down our literally mountainous driveway).

When I put my backpack on, I swing it around my wrist to get it on my shoulder.

It turns out I use that extra wrist rotation to help fold fucking laundry.

So yes, this is all a bit of an adjustment for me. I’m not even kidding. I even have to be careful when doing cross stitch that I try to hold the needle with my wrist in a neutral position. In addition to all the recruitment exercises that target my hips, glutes, core, calves, arches, and shoulders, I now have exercises to target my wrists – all things designed to increase my proprioception and awarenss of my joint position so I can avoid over-extending.

There’s just one problem: over-extending my wrist is useful. I’m not sure it’s possible to teach myself not to do it. I’ve taught myself not to lock my joints, not to hunch all the time, to consciously engage my postural muscles – all difficult things – but they didn’t involve much sacrifice (although locking joints is useful when you have underdeveloped postural muscles).

So the journey of the bendy gymster acquires another layer, another problem joint, and another exercise for maintenance.

Mostly what I learned from this is how much I actually use my hypermobility for extra leverage, without even being aware of it.

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