I had my first visit with my new occupational therapist last week and learned a few things. I learned that it takes about 18 months for your nerves to rewire after the kind of surgery I’ve undergone on my hands—but that most of the change happens in the first 6 months. I learned that my skin grafts will never have full sensation, although I can sense more than I realized. And I learned that I’m not imagining how the skin flap on my middle right finger is sending confusing signals to my brain about what I’m actually feeling and how my finger is oriented. More on that in a minute.
My OT works in my hand surgeon’s office, so she has a ton of expertise when it comes to my specifics. This is a great blessing. She explained that even if some of my nerves don’t regenerate, others may learn to compensate. To get a baseline assessment, she had me lay my hands outspread (as much as I can) on the table, palm down and then up. I had to close my eyes while she tapped different spots on my fingers with a series of plastic filaments, from a hair’s breadth in width to the thickness of a pencil lead. When I felt something, I let her know.
This took a while, but what we discovered is that my ability to sense touch is better than either of us expected (a good thing) and that my grafts have both deep pressure sensation and the ability to detect heat and sharpness (a very good thing). So, at least, I should be able to avoid burns and serious cuts. It’s not a free pass, but reassuring.
My right middle finger, in turn, has good sensation except for the flap’s seam. Basically, skin on the right side of that finger is now folded over the top and connected to the left side, with the top third amputated. It looks odd and stumpy, but it works well enough. What’s curious is how I think I’m still touching objects with the side of my finger when I’m actually feeling with what is now the rounded tip.
My OT explained that the nerves in what used to be the side of that finger are specialized, and my brain is still registering sensation as if my finger is moving sideways. Combine this with the fact that the finger is now a third shorter than it used to be, and it’s no wonder I can’t quite figure out where it is relative to objects I’m touching. Fortunately, she said, this will resolve with time as my brain rewires. Fascinating.
More sessions to come over the next few weeks as I learn how to use my hands again. My homework is to practice curling what’s left of my topmost knuckles before I bend my lower knuckles to approximate a fist. That way I achieve more of a grip. I’ve discovered that it helps to practice this while holding the steering wheel of my Prius, which is thick and padded and just about the right curvature.
Mostly, however, I need to be more mindful of how I reach and manipulate objects. I suppose this will become second nature with time. But it doesn’t hurt to bring a sense of purposeful awareness into simple movements. A good lesson there, too.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.
Image Credit: Hunter Harritt