Friday, June 22, 2012

1,2,3,4, I declare a thumb war

 Avulsion fracture of the proximal phalanx due to a repetitive stress injury of the ulnar collateral ligament. Not what I wanted to hear going into the field season. Utah Geological Survey preparator Scott Madsen (formerly National Park Service) has given several talks about the frequency of work related injuries in paleontology over the last ten years, and the safety message always bears repeating.

This joint has been hurting for a few weeks, but since my body (hands and arms in particular) is always feeling twinges or aches I ignored it, as they always go away at some point. But not this time. After bumping my thumb on a doorknob and feeling an explosion of pain that was clearly not tendonitis, I decided to have it looked at. The initial diagnosis was a strained or torn UCL, and the radiologist called the next day to inform me that the bone was fractured as well. This injury seems to be consistent with a condition called Gamekeeper's Thumb, or when acute, Skier's Thumb. 

There wasn't a single traumatic event that immediately led to the pain, I know that I first took note a month ago during Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals. While at a bar watching the Rangers lose, I remember asking for a cup of ice to numb the pain in my thumb. Earlier that day I had been trying in vain to open a consolidant bottle that was firmly glued closed, I hate to think that event may be what triggered the fracture, but I suppose it shouldn't be ruled out.
Since posting the xray on Facebook, I've since heard from a number of colleagues who have experienced similar pain. The takeaway is that joints and bones aren't supposed to hurt like hell all the time, and it is worth having these things checked out before long term damage is done. If you've suffered work related injuries in the lab or field, let me know and I'll pass the info along to Pedro Viegas, who has been collecting data on similar injuries. For hand safety, he recommends these anti-vibration gloves.

My next few weeks are doomed to taking it easy and wearing a goofy looking (and quite uncomfortable) cast to immobilize the thumb. Hopefully I can be good and give the hand some time off from airscribes, chisels, pinvises, shotguns, truck ignitions, shirt buttons, using a fork, taking off socks, driving stick, sculpting, writing, typing.... Jeez, I sure use my right thumb a lot.  

Madsen, S. 2002. Work-related injuries and illnesses related to preparation and fieldwork. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Supplement to No. 3

Madsen, S. 2008. The Preparator: a survivor’s guide. First Annual Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium, Abstracts of Papers 1:14

1 comment:

Allan said...

Did your injury happen while you’re working at a dig site? If that is the case, you should ask for worker's compensation, as you're entitled to that as well. As a paleontologist, you are exposed to the elements, and in an isolated place as well, where it might be difficult to get help if you’re in danger. Anyway, it's a good thing that you visited an expert to check your injury, who knows what might’ve happened if it was left unchecked.

Allan Kenan