Not Measuring Up
When I returned home from my last knee replacement surgery I had nurse visits, home rehabilitation with a physical therapist, and also occupational therapy (OT) for helping me adjust to my new limitations with adaptations. My OT sessions also included working on my range of motion and strength in my hands and arms.
During the first meeting, my otherwise very pleasant occupational therapist spent an hour measuring range of motion in my arm joints. She used a large goniometer for my elbows and shoulders. Then she pulled out a tiny metal one for my wrists and fingers.
It was agonizing! Not painful, but each joint budged just a few degrees. Truly, I was being measured and found wanting.
This was not news to me. I wasn’t surprised to learn that my arms and hands have issues. I’ve been living with severe stiffness and joint deformities for many years. Gradually I have developed ways to manage with the limitations my RA has left on my joints.
Throughout my childhood with RA I was regularly measured and therapists would shake their heads at my decline. I don’t think they understood the effect this had on me.
First, I would feel responsible and terrible about myself. But I didn’t have any control over my disease and how aggressively it attacked my joints!
Second, I felt increasingly helpless about my condition. If the goal was to prevent severe joint damage, I had lost the battle. Only later did I realize that my goal was not to be ‘normal,’ but to live the best life I could despite the reality of severe RA.
I was never going to be able to spin my shoulder around my head, do push-ups, or even point in a straight direction. But maybe I could work, write, and enjoy my life without a perfect range of motion?
Honestly, I am not against measurement or even range of motion measurements specifically. However, I don’t think measuring my lack of movement is all that helpful in understanding or tracking my RA. Perhaps in the early stages of my disease it may have showed the speed of the damage.
But after more time and reflection, I think tracking my inflammation, pain levels, stiffness, and fatigue is much more informative. Frankly, my joints are pretty far gone and many are frozen into place or with a limited range. We can get a much better picture of current disease activity from how I am feeling than lamenting all the damage that has already been done.
I know the point of measuring the limitations of my joints was not to make me feel bad. However, I’m just not sure anymore that range of motion numbers do much more than that. Does comparing my RA-affected joints with normal joints tell us anything different about my illness?
I’d like to challenge the notion that I don’t measure up. Sure, maybe in important ways I am limited. But I keep fighting my RA and work hard to live a fulfilling life. Is this failing to measure up?
I know that I’m fighting clinical assessments with ideas about quality of life, which many doctors and therapists may find uncomfortable. But living with a long-term chronic disease is not about being cured and may realistically involve gradually losing ground. I don’t want to lose the big picture, the really important stuff of life in pursuit of numbers that will never be satisfying.
Maybe in many people’s eyes I don’t measure up. But to them I want to say: don’t count me down and out. I’m still playing the game of life!
Check-in: As we start a new year, how are you feeling?