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 would also us 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 excess water before hanging them out on the line
stretched from the second floor to a pole in the backyard. 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.
I know now as a doctor that she was experiencing a common condition known as carpal
tunnel syndrome (CTS). This condition is caused by a compression of the median nerve.
This nerve 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 tissues. 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
CTS is caused by repetitive movements of the wrist, such as wringing out clothes as
my mom had done, typing, excessive use of the computer keyboard, excessive use of
screwdrivers and other tools, piano playing, shucking oysters and clams, and a host of
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. That’s just a study to see whether a nerve is
conducting an impulse adequately from the wrist to the hand.
The treatment of CTS varies depending on its severity. Often, a wrist splint (which
keeps 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. CTS surgery is done to
reduce the compression of the nerve.
My mom didn’t have all of these options and, therefore, 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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