overuse injuries; the necessity of working smart

Recently, within the last year, my husband, David, started playing the transverse flute. For those not familiar with musical instruments, that refers to flutes held horizontal to the body. I know, most are probably thinking “aren’t all flutes held horizontal to the body?” Which is a discussion better held at another time.

Now everyone is wondering why on Earth I am writing a post on musical instruments on our blog page dedicated to the climbing arborist. As stated, David is an arborist, specifically a climber. With over 50 years of climbing and working in residential tree care, overuse injuries have compounded and taken their toll. Cortisone shots in knees are delaying the, perhaps, inevitable replacement(s). Self-physical therapy exercises are buying time on the shoulders. X-rays show the hips are still pretty good. But the hands and elbows were seriously damaged.

December 2018 and January 2019 saw carpal tunnel surgery in both hands and ulna nerve surgery for both elbows. Whereas these may sound somewhat innocuous, the nerve damage, particularly in the right arm and hand were extensive and may never recover. The surgery at least arrested further deterioration of the nerves, which is good.

The most significant improvement was seen fairly quickly in the elbows where the surgeries were able to restore the ability to bend his arms without the circulation in his hands being virtually shut down within 5 minutes, resulting in complete loss of feeling and use. This made it impossible for him to play a transverse flute and, as you can imagine, had significant ramifications at work.

Nerves take a very long time to regenerate, if they can, and the surgeons said to “give it 2 years” before determining final outcome.

How bad was the damage? He has no feeling in the last three fingers of his right hand to the point he cannot tell if he is putting his entire hand in a pocket or not without looking. When it is cold, it is that much worse. As in one of those quirks of nature, even though the fingers and hands are numb, cold intensifies the pain. The hands, particularly the right hand, become non-functional.

Remember he is a climber. Consider just how important it is to be able to tie a knot, handle your saw and other equipment, feel the rope, grasp a limb. Has this limited the work we are able to accept? Of course, it has. With no desire to become another dismal statistic on someone’s tree accident report, we are extremely discretionary on the work we now accept.

Where am I going with sharing this information? What I see and hear from young climbers and tree workers, and this refers mostly to the male species, is the confident attitude they can “muscle through anything”. It feels good to strain the muscles and perform strong feats. Yes, I know it does. But “working smart” does not mean “wimping out”. Try to find a tree worker/climber who has been climbing for over 10 years that isn’t living on pain killers, let alone one who have made it 20, 30 years or beyond. They all have the aches and pains from overuse injuries to go with the physical toll this profession demands.

But is that physical toll still mandatory? Many go to bucket trucks or mechanical lifts to lessen their physical output. But you shouldn’t wait until physical limitations dictate a change nor is it mandatory to give up climbing. The only reason David is still climbing is due to the innovations created by Stationary Rope Technique (SRT) systems. This style gained popularity and acceptance as the new climbing tools, referred to as multicenders, were developed. The new climbing techniques are more ergonomically sound. Using these tools correctly, it is possible to avoid many of the overuse injuries accepted as the norm in the past. These newer techniques utilize the large leg muscles as opposed to relying solely on the arms and shoulders.

For the young, up-and-coming climbers out there, it is not necessary to learn the “old way” first and graduate to the new. Start off correctly, safely and save your body for the long haul. War stories about injuries and subsequent surgeries shouldn’t be a goal in arboriculture.

© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

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