The Overrated Opposable Thumb

thumbsOf all the things to be mindful of, it’s not often we hear “thumbs” on that list.

However, if you’re interested in reducing tension, particularly in your shoulders and neck, it’s probably not a bad place to start.  By paying attention to our thumbs a little differently, they can become a great biofeedback device for how much tension we may be carrying throughout our body.

Yes, thumbs are useful.  They allow us to do unique stuff.  I can’t imagine playing tennis or golf well without thumbs.   Apple would have to rethink the ergonomics of the iPhone.

However, we need to be careful with these opposable appendages.   They can be a source of tension.  Primarily because we overuse them.  We rely on them too much.   We overestimate their power and agility.   When in fact they are rather delicate.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a reminder of just how delicate our thumbs can be.   Carpal tunnel is numbness, tingling, weakness, and other problems in your hand because of pressure on the median nerve in your wrist.

The median nerve and several tendons run from your forearm to your hand through a small space in your wrist called the carpal tunnel.  The median nerve controls movement and feeling in your thumb and first three fingers.

It’s easy to spot thumb tension.  The thumb juts out even in activities in which the thumb has absolutely no reason to be active.  I notice it a lot in walking.

The thumb is part of our “upper side” cord.  This is a cord that you can trace from your thumb all the way to your shoulder, neck and base of skull.   Tension in the upper side cord traditionally leads to tension in the shoulders and neck.   This is often accompanied by tension headaches.

Our “under side” cord is quite different.   This begins with your pinkie, runs underneath your arm, down your back, hips and down your leg.   Despite its size, the pinkie is connected to the larger muscle groups and a significantly larger portion of your body.

It’s a fun fact that carpal tunnel syndrome affects every finger except the pinkie.   The pinkie is not part of that pesky and delicate median nerve.

If you’ve ever offered a finger to a baby, you were probably surprised by its amazing grip.  Why is this?  Why is a baby’s grip so unexpectedly strong and disproportionate to its size?

The answer lies in the fact that the baby is holding naturally.  It is holding with its under side cord, that is, with its pinkie.

Holding with your under side cord means holding with your entire body.   You are holding in a more connected and relaxed way.   As a result, it is naturally stronger.

Somewhere along the way, we moved from holding naturally with our under side cord to holding more with our thumbs and upper side.    And in doing so, we made ourselves susceptible to more tension.

So if you want a quick reminder of relaxation in your daily life, look to your thumb.   Take regular glances throughout the day, and notice if it looks tense.  If it does, relax it, and see if the rest of your hand, arm and shoulder follow.

And it you want to take it a step further, start giving your thumb some time off.  Use that pinkie more.

The next time you shake hands, pick up a bag, reach for a drink, brush your teeth, turn a steering wheel … hold with your under side cord.   Let your pinkie do the work.  You’ll be surprised by your more natural, child-like power.

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