Little popliteal moments

More adventures of the Woolly Mammoth and his Platinum Wonder Hip, with some anatomical technicality.

For some days, I’ve been able to rise from sitting to standing entirely from my legs, without pushing up on anything or grabbing anything for support. This is a Very Big Thing, take my word for it.

Then came expeditions with my walker, first just to the mailboxes in the back of my condo complex, then around the corner to have lunch at Gordon Biersch, then yesterday to Whole Foods (as well as back from GB). It’s like recovering the use of a lost limb, not to mention the social world outside my living room (I get to come across friends and neighbors on the street!). This involves a lot of more or less ordinary walking, one leg in front of the other, not jockeying jerkily with the walker, and increasingly I don’t use the walker for support at all, only occasional balancing.

After yesterday’s WF trip, I stood up (in my new fashion) from working at the computer — and was seized with wild complaint from little muscles I’d never appreciated before (though, from my work on anatomical and ordinary language I knew they existed, in principle anyway).

It’s like what happens on the first nice day of spring, when you go out to prune, pull weeds, etc., stop for a rest after an hour or so — and find that your hands are suddenly, ouch ouch ouch, cramping into claws. Because you haven’t really used those little muscles for months, and they’re protesting.

Well, I wasn’t really able to walk for months, so those little muscles at the backs of my knees didn’t get used. And now they object. The Platinum Wonder Hip was fine, but my popliteal muscles were unhappy. (Fortunately, this is not crippling, just damned annoying.)

Ok, kids, where have we seen popliteal before? A year ago, in a posting of mine on “Concavities” (like the back/inside of the knee, or as some have it, the knee pit):

Other pits. Analogous to the armpit are the inside of the elbow and the inside of the knee. These phrases — inside of the elbow, inside of the knee — are of course available for talking about these areas, but there are no standard lexical items for them in ordinary English. There are anatomical terms, cubital fossa and popliteal fossa, respectively, but these are even less commonly known than axilla. (Latin fossa ‘ditch, trench’. Anatomical terms are packed with metaphors.) (link)

One thing I didn’t take up in that posting was how to pronounce the word. And then I got two competing pronunciations from different medical folks — anatomical Latin-based English has its challenges — so this looks like another one of those cases where whichever pronunciation I go for, there’s a fair chance that the person I’m talking to will find it incorrect. (I’ve struggled with medullar since Jacques’s medullar blastoma in 1980.)

It turns out that the OED is even-handed about the matter: it gives two choices, in both British and American English, for popliteal, with main accent on either the second or third syllable. I like the second syllable, my physical therapist (who’s decided his work with me is done, I’m able to follow the program on my own now) is firmly in favor of the third. So it goes.

Also missing from my earlier anatomical postings (which covered a very large number of referents and terms) were the etymology and the full details of usage. The adj. popliteal in English is related to the anatomical English n. popliteus, and that‘s a kind of truncation of musculus popliteus ‘popliteal muscle’, involving the Latin adj. popliteus. Then from OED3 (Dec. 2006) on popliteal:

Designating or relating to the space at the back of the knee; of or relating to a structure (muscle, blood vessel, etc.) located in the space. [first cite 1754]

The OED is murky on the sources of the Latin. But in any case the Romans had a word for it.

Turns out that the popliteal fossa is just packed with a variety of structures; it’s a crowded neighborhood, so much so that, my p.t. guy tells me, self-defense instructors suggest a powerful whack to the back of the knee as an effective way of temporarily immobilizing an attacker.

Today I drove my poor popliteal muscles hard by walking roughly 7 blocks — slowly, but relentlessly, on a route that took me to the post office, the pharmacy, and a barbershop where I got, oh blessed day, a shampoo, major haircut, beard and moustache trim, and shaving touch-up with a cutthroat razor, from an aging barber in a funky shop attached to the Cardinal Hotel up the street from my house. Not many of these places left, and they no longer have shoe-shine stations. But being fussed over expertly (time virtually comes to a halt for these ministrations) by a crusty old Italian barber, amid piles of the Sporting News or its equivalent, is one of those cultural rituals of masculinity that I’ve treasured since my first such experience, when I was (I think) 17.

My profound thanks to Elizabeth Traugott, who gave me three hours of her time this afternoon for these indulgences of mine. (I’m still not supposed to venture out on my own, without someone to accompany me. I’m beginning to chafe at the restriction, since it involves seriously imposing on lots of busy people.) There was rather a lot of standing in line involved, and fortunately I’m now really good at just standing (you can improve the moment by shifting your weight from foot to foot for exercise and doing other little exercises with each foot, not to mention clenching your glutes and working your abs inconspicuously), on my own two feet, treating the walker as an ornament.

Popliteal muscles loosening up, meanwhile.


One Response to “Little popliteal moments”

  1. bratschegirl Says:

    Excellent news! It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that hip replacement is one of the most difficult “procedures” from which to recover. Incredibly invasive of itself, and as you make so very clear here there’s not only the surgery itself but all the side effects from non-use of some body parts and misuse of others in the service of trying to accommodate the pain during the time leading up to the “procedure” (medical euphemisms are fun, aren’t they?).

    I have a very vague recollection of having heard the word “popliteal” pronounced with accent on the final syllable, but never on the second. Then again, I think I’ve only actually heard it spoken on the one occasion.

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