ON THE SCENE: Aches, tingling lead to ulnar nerve
Do you know what or where your ulnar nerve is? I had no idea until two weekends ago when my brother Chris pointed it out.
Chris, Q for short, is a board-certified medical illustrator based in Princeton, New Jersey. He and his wife Eva have purchased a cottage in Wilmington, where they hope to move to within a few years.
Q knows the human body inside and out. He illustrates how problems within it can be fixed by surgery or other means in various atlases of human anatomy, animated videos and medical journals. So when I have questions about how aspects of the body function, he’s my go-to guy. Two weeks ago, I was over visiting them and mentioned that my left shoulder and elbow ached, and the third and little finger were tingling like crazy. He pointed to places on his arm down to the edge of my left hand and asked I felt pain in any of them.
“Yes, exactly,” I said.
“Have you experienced this before?” he asked.
“Those fingers and the bottom edge of that hand have done so often for years,” I said. “Usually, I can shake it out, and it seems to go away after a few days. But nothing like this; it’s so painful I’ve had a hard time going to sleep the last few days.”
“Have you done anything differently of late?”
“I went skiing at Whiteface,” I said. “I got there early before the sun had a chance to warm it up. The surface was a little firm, so I was using my poles a lot going down Skyward.”
Truth be told, I also didn’t do a great job of sharpening my old skis’ edges, which resulted in the extra effort.
“You probably have a pinched or compressed your ulnar nerve and have done so for a while,” he said. “Do you sleep with your arms bent, perhaps your hands under your head? Do you rest your head on your hands a lot or put your elbows on a table?”
After I agreed to those and other observations, he said I should take a couple Aleve tablets, see my physician, who will probably refer me to a physical therapist, and perhaps a chiropractor. He suggested I consider yoga as I have to improve my posture and take a hot bath before I go to bed.
Q then explained how the ulnar works, why I needed an anti-inflammatory drug and the importance of good posture. Inwardly I cursed myself for not taking our mother’s good advice on sitting straight and that by various sports coaches on stretching before exercise. And, like so many people the world over, I am living with increased stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic and its impact on health, the economy and our ability to socialize.
After seeing my physician Dr. Chris Hyson, who scheduled a time with a physical therapist at Adirondack Health’s Lake Placid Health and Medical Fitness Center, I went to the chiropractor, Dr. Joe Dockery in Saranac Lake, who several friends highly recommended. Like all chiropractors, Dockery works to improve the body’s ability to heal itself by aligning the spine as a means of making it easier for our nervous system to function correctly.
“The idea is to keep the spine aligned and as limber as possible,” said Dockery.
He said facilitating the spine’s motion helps dissipate and reduce inflammation, which enables the healing of the joint. After giving me an examination, Dockery said he’s sure I have a pinched nerve in my neck and was pleased that I’d be seeing a physical therapist. After his adjustment, I found myself walking straighter. He gave me some exercises to strengthen my neck muscles, which would help me sit and walk more erect.
The next day I went to the fitness center. When it first opened, I took a tour and once took a friend to the emergency room, but never came as a patient. It’s impressive and a perfect asset for a sports-crazed community with an Olympic training center, lots of mountains to tumble down and daily activities to pursue. My physical therapist, Carolyn Walrath, did a battery of tests and measurements. Among other gleanings, I learned that my left hand’s grip is 60% of my right, the same for my ability to pinch. We agreed likely I had a pinched nerve in my neck, and possibly it was compromised in my elbow as well. Walrath suggested I get a nerve conduction study so the nerve compression’s exact locations can be identified.
As getting an appointment with a neurologist isn’t possible before the end of the month, and an orthopedic doc not until the end of May, I am now into exercises that help me floss my ulnar nerve, strengthening my neck so I can hold my head more erect, and so forth. Meanwhile, all this pain has done wonders for my back, turning it into a garden of knots. As a means of dealing with them, I turned to Sherri Warner at Keene Valley Massage. She and her sister Jessie are two talented massage therapists skilled at deep-tissue massage and other treatments.
Sherri, who grew up as an athlete in Keene Valley, has been a professional massage therapist for 19 years. Having experienced plenty of injuries and pain as a youth, she liked the idea of drawing upon her own experiences to help others and the flexibility of the hours.
“I love helping people relax and get through difficult times in life,” said Warner. “Each person who walks in has a different story, is at a different place in their life. So it’s challenging every time. Some people come in because it’s their birthday and they want to relax. A lot come in with concerns after illnesses and injuries and need specialized attention. Plenty have nerve pain. My approach is different depending on the person. They say what’s going on with them, and I assess them. If it’s something I can’t manage, I’ll send them to someone who can.”
Manage she can. Using a Swedish-based deep massage, Warner first relaxed my back and arm, gaining a lay of the land. She then slowly worked the muscles and knots in a way that helped them relax and open up. The change was profound. Before I left, Warner suggested some self-care exercises to extend the benefits and other techniques to address the Ulnar nerve damage.
I am by no means out of pain and will be shifting to another PT specializing in neck injuries. I have been gaining skills that have helped, but the nerve damage is very present, with some days far worse than others. While I hope to get a nerve conduction study done sooner than later, the good news is the array of talent we have in our community that can help us along our health journey, trained professionals highly skilled and very caring. We live in a very tight community where people look out for each other. I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else.
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)