The inflexibility of a flexible hip brace
@ filins / Adobe Stock
The inflexibility of a flexible hip brace
For months, I thought the crunching sound I heard with every move I made was the Iliotibial band snapping. That injury, incurred while plodding through parts of Barcelona many would never dream of seeking out, had been snapping at me for many months but had quieted. Still, my limp was getting worse.
Because I have an inherited muscle disorder, (Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy), I am constantly pulling out one muscle or another. My solution was to buy a mobility device and hope the crunch would disappear. Surely, resting the leg while I zoomed around would facilitate healing.
My therapist disagreed, insisting that I get an x-ray. I acquiesced. Her suspicions were correct. I needed surgery: the ball in my hip had ground to nothing and the socket was not far behind. My choice was either that that or remain in a wheelchair for life.
In October of 2020, I had a total hip arthroplasty. The surgery went well. I had been recovering splendidly for 5 ½ weeks and then…in early December, after doing 40 minutes of exercise on my own and another 30 with my therapist, my new hip popped out of place. The reason? I had most likely overworked my muscles that day. My hip couldn’t withstand my zealousness. Or, sometimes it’s just bad luck that happens about 6 weeks after surgery
I had been exultant at my progress. As I stood at the kitchen counter making my lunch and congratulating myself, my left leg gave way and twisted. If I moved, the pain intensified. I didn’t want it to move, ever again. I screamed — very loudly. My husband called 911. The ambulance came swiftly. The medics gently transported me to the nearest hospital. But the ER doctor could not put my hip back in place without a powerful paralyzing drug not available in ER. I would have to stay overnight at the hospital so my orthopedic surgeon could do the job the next day.
To reduce the chance of a second hip displacement (chances are 30-70%), there are options — none of them appealing. The first step is a brace meant to push my hipbone out slightly and thus make more room for the new ball and socket to rest in and stabilize. So my doctor prescribed a Hinged Pelvic Hip Leg Brace for me. He is a good doctor, very accomplished, so I must heed his advice. My assignment was to wear it for 6-8 weeks, 23 hours a day (an hour to bathe). Another operation might be considered if this hip brace doesn’t work. Quite frankly, I’d prefer the operation to the torture I’ve been experiencing. But, the brace option apparently cannot be skipped.
How does this device work? Despite the assurance that the Orthotic provides “comfortable support and no waist-gapping,” it is NOT comfortable, I can assure you.
The brace wraps the body in two places: the left leg is strapped so that it is guided outwards and inward movement is almost impossible. A metal bar attaches this bottom section to a wrap-around upper brace that is supposed to ride at one’s waist and hold the leg portion in place. I am encased in hard and unforgiving plastic. The bar bends a bit when I sit, but constantly bangs against my arm. Velcro padding does not work. I am scraped and bruised by the rivets.
The upper brace, which is a smaller size to accommodate my shape, does not flex; it punches into my midriff and breasts constantly. When I sit, it rubs against my nipples (that sag downwards rather then being perkily upright) — a most uncomfortable sensation for a 76-year old woman. (If the reader is a man, imagine your penis being constantly rubbed.)
Sadly, the promise that this brand of hip brace reduces “waist-gapping” is unfulfilled. I have resorted to stuffing the gap between my upper chest and the hard plastic with washcloths. I slump into a position where my pelvis is slightly forward to avoid smushing my breasts. Not much help but at least it gives me a tiny bit of control. Still, I am disregarding my mother’s long-ago admonition to “sit up straight.”
I am constantly rearranging the upper brace. I push it down but of course it does not stay anchored. Sliding is its favorite pastime. Riding in my mobility chair requires fitting myself into the 18 inches meant for hips, plus the added 4 inches of the brace arm. I wiggle left and right, endeavoring to settle in, which I cannot do.
When I struggle to a standing position, the weight of the brace fights with my balance. Exercise is difficult. Getting up and down or walking while dragging this contraption makes me stagger from one place to another. At least I am burning a lot of calories. Walking demands pulling the extra weight while remaining upright. Because the brace is meant to push my left leg further to the left, I waddle-walk. Any gracefulness I once had has disappeared.
The hour (which used to be 20 minutes) I take for a shower and getting dressed is my daily relief. Selecting clothing is an adventure. I have tried several different bra styles to no avail. I stuff a sock into each cup to provide some padding against the unrelenting poking brace. Next I put on a man’s t-shirt to protect my skin from the metal. I need to put on my socks before bracing up, because bending over after that is almost impossible. I use a sock aid, a plastic mini-boat-like contraption to slide the sock onto. Sitting, I try to maneuver my foot into the device and tug with the attached ropes. I still have to lean down, reach and tug. Tying laces is simply beyond me. My shoes have to be slip-ons.
I put on panties after strapping on the brace. Otherwise, the panties would be nearly impossible to pull down from under the tight-fitting brace (accidents have been known to happen while tugging). Even so, I have to wiggle and writhe to get them down when using the toilet. I now have several stretched-out-of-shape undergarments. A man, on the other hand, won’t be bothered by this conundrum because his underwear has a built-in gap for convenience. My outer clothing has to go over the bulky brace. The left side of me protrudes, as if I were the Hunched-Left Hip of Notre Dame. I am constantly adjusting, a state of physical and emotional irritation.
Who designed this annoying contraption? I am convinced that it must have been a male medical engineer envisioning its fit for a male body. Perhaps a woman with a “pencil” shape would find the brace tolerable. But, what about women with one of the other common shapes: hourglass, apple, rectangle, inverted triangle/pear shape? The certified orthotist who fit me commented that I am “oddly shaped.” Apparently, being a pear-shaped woman with a smaller upper than lower body is unusual, at least to this person. The fault couldn’t be the flawed design of the orthotic.
I bet a female medical engineer could find a solution. Perhaps a sturdy elastic band that wraps around the waist, but does ride up, to hold up the leg portion of the brace? Or a plastic piece molded to the hip portion of the brace that then straps at the stomach or waist, avoiding or shortening that metal connector?
I wonder how those who must wear a brace permanently are fitted? I hope with a great deal more attention to the actual shape of the person. Those folks have become heroes to me. Eight weeks is nothing by comparison.
But in the moment when I am hitching and padding and struggling and swearing, I am so grouchy. And then the fear of another pop-out (30-70% chance) pops into my mind. I count the hours and days left on my sentence.
Judy Richardson does not give in to the fear of falling. She refuses to stop doing what she loves, especially traveling, just because she has to rely on mobility devices. She travels at her own gait and expects that being lost and found is part of the journey. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.