A Painful Story of Carpal Tunnel Surgery Recovery

My friend Debby had a custom cake business and started developing problems with her hands. It turned out to be carpal tunnel syndrome, which is the bane of the cake decorator's livelihood. I know at least four people who do cakes who have developed problems with their hands or shoulders. Unfortunately, in Debby's case it resulted in the decision to close her business.

For various reasons including insurance issues, she decided to have both of her hands operated on at the same time. I asked her to write up a description of her recovery process, because from what I saw the reports of "I had my hands done and was back at work the next day" were WAY off base. Maybe that person only had one hand done, maybe they have a high pain tolerance, who knows. But this is Debby's story:

The Green Lady is asking about my wedding cakes.  Her face slides in different directions and her questions make no sense, so I fall asleep.  When I wake up 90 minutes later, my cake career is over.  If I return to caking, the carpal tunnel will return, and I will eventually have to undergo surgery again.  I don’t want to see the Green Lady again. 

I go home.  Both of my hands look like I’m wearing catcher’s mitts that are wrapped up in miles-long bandages.  My mitts are covered with bulky gel packs.  The cold feels good, but it doesn’t last long, so the packs need changing every four hours.  Each hand feels like it weighs twenty pounds. I’m totally incapacitated for two days.

I sleep and watch bad TV.  I can barely pick up and hold the remote, let alone change the channels.  The buttons are too small, too close together, and too hard to push.  I can swipe on my phone with my thumbs, so I kill time on Pinterest.  Wedding season is coming, and I get seven inquiries.  I cry angry tears that I can’t wipe away.  It takes 45 minutes to get semi-clean in the shower.  Drying off is a nightmare.  Using the bathroom is a bigger nightmare.  After three days, I use both hands to brush most of my teeth.    

I have to keep my hands above my heart.  All.  The.  Time.  If I forget, they instantly remind me by throbbing.  My shoulders ache, and my fingers are constantly cold from the lack of circulation.  I spend thirty minutes getting dressed because my husband had to leave town for work.  Baby wipes replace the shower.  I can barely unlock the car door, yet I somehow drive our sons to their schools and activities.  It takes two hands and several seconds to shift the car into gear, and steering is extremely difficult.  Parking spaces are torture.           

I unwrap my hands after two weeks.  While my left hand and wrist sport a few bruises, my right arm is a technicolor canvas that spans from my fingers to my elbow.  The incisions are surprisingly short, but I wince at how red and deep they are.  Wrist braces replace the bulky bandages.  Frequent shooting pains and electrical jolts join the throbbing.  I feel like I’m getting tased on a routine basis.  I try to clean the house; it hurts to push the vacuum or squeeze the spray bottle trigger, and I constantly drop the dust wand.  I develop a weird technique for holding a spoon or fork.  Every day, our older son helps me buy groceries for dinner.  I point at the things we need; he does everything else.  I don’t even have the manual dexterity to remove my debit card from my wallet. On the plus side, I can occasionally turn a doorknob.

Squeezing my special PT sponges is hard work.  I can use the remote, but I still can’t hold a book, open bottles or jars, type, write, or make a fist. My hands and arms constantly ache.  I can only pick up one pot, pan, drinking glass, or plate at a time while I cook.  It takes forever and is exhausting.  So is removing foods from the packaging.  If I turn my palms outward, I can carry a small basket of laundry to the den. I have to rest before I can start folding the laundry.  I can return to the gym after three weeks, so I do, and within fifteen minutes, one of the incisions starts to open.  Our younger son offers to cheer me up with a card game, and I can’t.

The shooting pains and jolts eventually disappear.  My palms are very sore; the incisions are extremely tender.  The cuffs of my long sleeve shirts and sweaters feel like red-hot knives are stabbing my hands.  I nearly faint from a well-meaning handshake.  My handwriting looks almost-normal if I remove the braces, so I can finally write a check to the piano teacher.  I can usually open cans that have a tab top.  I zip my pants and tie my shoes. Sometimes, I hold my drink with one hand.  I sew two buttons back onto a shirt, and it takes my hands two days to stop complaining.  I still can’t pump gas, applaud normally, use a can opener, chop vegetables, cut my meat, use scissors, or open the mailbox.  I go for a walk to get my heart rate up, and the throbbing returns.  I drop things.  A lot.   

It’s mind-blowing that two 1-inch incisions can cause so much frustration and pain.  Hands are, well, handy things, and they get used a lot in everyday life.  Almost every day is a little better than the day before, but it’s an incredibly slow recovery.  I hope to fully recover in three months instead of four.  Using both hands, I can now use the can opener.  I can chop a few vegetables and hold a fork or spoon normally, but sometimes I still can’t cut my food.  I can generally carry full laundry baskets.  It has taken me an hour to type this, and my hands are really achy and fatigued again. 

I’m thrilled to wake up every morning, run my thumbs over my fingertips, and have feeling in every finger. 

Today marks six weeks. 
Kara Buntin owns A Cake To Remember LLC, custom wedding cakes in Richmond VA, and cake supplies online at www.acaketoremember.biz and http://www.acaketoremember.etsy.com/