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What Has 2 Thumbs And A Propensity To Overuse Them?


In most of my YouTube video tutorials, I lean pretty heavily on my thumbs. And I get a fair amount of commentary about it. Ranging from genuine questions like - “How might you address this area using knuckles or an elbow?” To more assuming accusations like “What is lady thinking? She clearly won’t last long as a massage therapist.” All of which are fine and good. YouTube comments are an entirely different, and somewhat entertaining conversation. But they do indicate, along with the plethora of emails I have received over the years, that self care for our hands, and most specifically our thumbs, seems to be a mystery.

The questions it this: If our thumbs are our most used tools, how do we care for them so that we don’t have to stop doing the work we love to do or, even worse, that we don’t end up with arthritis or some other thumb impairment? There are the tried and true basics. And of course the knowledge of thumb anatomy and physiology is a plus. But when it comes to bodyworkers, the increasing quest for how to care for our abused hands and help to prolong our careers involves a (kind of) new definition of self care.

A quick review of the basics:

Stretching, icing, heating, hydration, nutrition, exercise, sleep, body mechanics, and, of course, massage. I know I am preaching to the choir here so elaborating on the details is unnecessary. Instead, I will highlight these bumper stickers of thought:

- Lazy stretching only scratches the surface.

- Ketchup is not a vegetable.

- Arizona Iced Teas are not hydration.

- A 5 minute walk may not be a marathon but it is leaps and bounds better than doing nothing.

- Ice and heat are both great. Pick one. Or both. Just don’t do neither.

- Both sleep and body mechanics can be convoluted. Just don’t ever give up and give in to the idea that “it’s just who you are”. Movement through the challenging aspects of our own physical obstacles is at the core of what we do for our clients. Treat yourself with the same respect and keep trying.

- And I don’t know how many massage therapists are preaching the benefits of bodywork and yet go months without getting some themselves. I admit it - I have traveled down this dark path. Deciding between getting a massage and catching up on Breaking Bad was not always the easiest choice to make. But, just like Walter White, we can all take a little more stock into our own future.

A quick review of thumb anatomy:

It is easy to see how this awesome opposable appendage is one of the cooler things that we as humans get to brag about. (Ok so do Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Orangutans, Baboons, Koalas, Pandas, Possums, Lemurs and Waxy Leaf Tree Frogs). The point is, the ability to take one of our digits, pull it away from the others, reach across our palm and grab onto things is a handy trick. It certainly makes grabbing a muscle you want to massage a lot easier. But, as the old saying goes, with more complexity comes more vulnerability. Or something like that.

The thumb is a convoluted piece of anatomy where muscles traveling in one direction (the First Dorsal Interossei muscle and the First Lumbrical muscle) intersect and sometimes clash with muscles traveling in a perpendicular direction (the Flexor Pollicis Brevis, the Adductor Pollicis and the Opponens Pollicis). This is almost always a recipe for disaster.

Couple this with the compressive force imposed when finding that trigger point in your client’s QL that you so badly want t

o help relieve. Indeed, our thumbs don’t have it easy. With these factors taken into account, it only makes sense that our thumbs should receive that much more attention.

A new definition of self care (kind of):

All of these external lists of “things to do” and smarts about the tissues and tendencies of the thumb don’t DO much of anything if you don’t first and foremost know your own self. Listening to outside suggestions is part of the human experience. But in that journey, homing in on who you are and what works or what doesn’t work for you is a slow path of asking hard questions and then having the endurance to find the answers. Some people call this critical thinking. I call it making mistakes on purpose.

Try this: Make a list of each of the basic self care approaches listed above. Maybe even add on a few of your own. Take a month and diligently practice the first one on your list. Ask yourself if you are doing it well and how you can adjust to make it work better for you. Then, for the next month, move down the list and focus on the next method. With the same tenacity, engage and stay focused on what is working and what is falling flat. Continue with this pattern until you’ve completed the list.

Do all of this with your keen sense of hand and thumb anatomy in focus. And, if you are motivated, use this same method to answer your next looming question of why something hurts or is difficult. This may not be the quick fix we are all searching for, but I promise you it will reveal some incredible answers.

“Nature is methodical, and doeth her work well. Time is never to be hurried.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson


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