The way that bones, muscles and tendons all connect is pretty impressive in its elegance.
Did you know? Hands contain 29 bones, 17 muscles, 123 ligaments, and various arteries and nerves. There are then another 18 muscles in the forearm that help operate the hand and fingers and thumb.
What results is a part of our anatomy, which is very flexible, durable and highly functional. Our opposable thumbs are a clever piece of design, and as advanced primates, we put them to good use.
What is unique to humans is the trio of muscles in our thumbs that allow us to manipulate tools (including smartphones nowadays) exceptionally effectively. They are not well known: few have heard of the extensor pollicis longus, flexor pollicis longus and brevis for example. Each muscle attaches to a bone via a tendon. The tendon allows the force of the muscle to be transferred across a joint to create movement.
A few days ago, I was reminded of the importance of the thumb muscles after treating a young patient who had accidentally severed one of the tendons of the thumb. A very intricate surgical repair was performed by a specialist hand surgeon followed by the use of a splint for some time. Now it is time for the rehabilitation phase, which is where I, as a chartered physiotherapist, come in.
During the time the injured thumb was out of action, everyday activities which require the use of the hand, fingers and thumb were very limited. Little by little, the use of the thumb will return. My job is to help restore movement, strength and function with specific physiotherapy techniques.
Of course, accidents can happen. However, this patient reminded me of the importance of our hands, fingers and, in particular, our thumbs and how we need to look after them. Keeping them away from sharp objects is a good start, as is keeping your thumbs strong and flexible. Try not to abuse them. Avoid overusing the muscles and tendons which operate the thumb on your smartphone for hours each day; otherwise, the dreaded 'texters thumb' condition could result. Also, be careful what you eat, avoid pro-inflammatory foods like seed oils and sugars which can drive inflammation in older arthritic thumb joints. Omega 3 fatty acid supplements may help reduce inflammation and preserve the joints.
If something goes wrong and your thumb is injured, please have it assessed by a qualified healthcare professional, such as an experienced chartered physiotherapist, sooner than later.
Look after your thumbs, and they will look after you!
By Lorraine Caroll MPhyty, BSc, CMA