An unexpected cause of pain: being short

Of all the things in life that can cause pain, you would never think of being short as one of them, would you? I’m not talking about being short due to some genetic condition or illness. I just mean, you know, short.

My mother is 5’2″. My father’s mother was 5’3″ before she shrunk in her later years. I was expected to be at least my mother’s height, but then scoliosis caused me to stop getting taller as my spine compressed a bit, and I ended up only being 5’1″. Ok, almost. Hey, my driver’s license says 5’1″ and I’m sticking with it!

Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with arthritis in the joint of the big toe on my right foot. Since that toe is essential for walking, and now it’s painful, this isn’t good. And I’m only in my 30s, so I need it to work for a long time to come. This sucks.

There’s a long list of things my doctor says I can no longer do: run, jump, sprint, stand on my toes, wear high heels….. hold on! Back up! Not stand on my toes?!?

The rest of those are no problem at all, but I stand on my toes All. The. Time!

In these past 2 weeks, and in the 2 months of pain leading up to the diagnosis, I realized that I stand on my toes even more than I had thought. I do this for things that you would never guess (unless you’re a fellow short person.) Some of it isn’t too surprising: reaching items on the top shelf in the grocery store. Looking through a clothes rack that’s too high (why do stores put them so high up?!) But then there are the things you wouldn’t guess, like reaching the shelves in my kitchen cabinets and getting things off a shelf in my closet.

And then there are the things that have been shocking my doctors and friends as I mention them. Things like sitting on a bus or subway, where I’m not “standing” on my toes, but my toes are in that same position just so that they can touch the floor. Ditto sitting on a toilet. This is true at home, where I keep a step stool next to the toilet to rest my feet on. I began doing that years ago for comfort, so that I could actually sit without leaning far forward to put my feet down, during the hours that I would be on the toilet dealing with diarrhea and nausea (thank goodness that’s mostly improved!) It’s so much worse on public toilets, which tend to be higher. When I drive, I mostly press the pedals with my toes. After all, it’s hard to get my foot flat on the pedal, thanks to my short legs.

Then there are chairs and couches. When I was couch shopping, I had to try a lot of couches before I found one where my knees could bend. Most are so deep, my knees don’t reach to the end of the couch. But even so, my feet don’t entirely touch the floor unless I put a pillow behind my back, which isn’t the most comfortable thing. Without that, I have three options: put my feet on the coffee table, tuck my legs up on the couch under me, or have only my toes on the floor. The first I can only do for so long, so I usually do the second, which leads to neck and back pain.

When I had surgery on my other foot a few years ago, I spent several months in casts. I wore a sneaker on my other foot with a lift on it, so that my hips wouldn’t be misaligned. Part way into my recovery, I noticed something shocking: my neck and back pain were gone! I think it was for a few reasons:

First, I was sitting upright. I wasn’t leaning to the side or putting my feet up under me or next to my body. I couldn’t. I was mostly sitting with my feet up on the coffee table, to keep the injured foot elevated. Sometimes I sat upright, and with the extra few inches I had, my feet could now rest on the floor!

I also found that not having to reach up so far to get things out of kitchen cabinets made a big difference for my neck. It’s simply a matter of degree. We all reach up, but I had to reach up more, often over my head, and I guess those movements all added up.

On top of that, when I washed dishes, instead of hunching my shoulders as I reached up over the edge of the sink, then down into it, I was now simply reaching straight down. Wow!

Finally, I wasn’t driving. At all. I was recently driving a much taller friend, and she commented that my shoulders don’t go back against the seat when I drive. Well of course they don’t! How could they? I would need to have the steering wheel practically in my face in order to put my shoulders back. My physical therapist told me to use a lumbar support. I mentioned it would be annoying to adjust it every time I leaned forward and it slipped out of place. She said I shouldn’t be leaning forward. But she’s an average height. So doesn’t realize that I have to lean forward just a bit to reach the radio, heat, and air conditioning controls, not to mention seeing all sorts of awkward angles when I make turns or park.

This society is simply not designed for short people. A short friend told me about the joys of traveling to India, where the average height is lower than it is here in the United States. She said that she marveled at her ability to put her feet on the floor of the bus when she sat, and to reach items on shelves. It sounds marvelous!

Unfortunately, I live in a society designed for taller people. Until recently, I only thought of this as an inconvenience. I ask strangers to get things off of shelves in stores for me. I keep a step stool in every room of my house so I can reach items. I don’t use the top shelves in my kitchen cabinets because, even with the step stools, I can’t reach them. I can’t carry suitcases, tote bags, and other items, the way taller people do, because I can’t let my arms hang down; the items would drag on the floor. Instead, I need to raise these items up to clear the ground, and that’s hard and sometimes impossible.

Ok, I live with those inconveniences.

But now I have realized the pain it has caused me. And I resent that. Not that I can change it, but I resent it.

At home I will try to wear shoes with lifts, which is absurd, because I should be able to walk barefoot in my own home if that’s what I want to do. But there are no solutions to driving, sitting, and the myriad other ways that our society is causing me additional pain, simply because I am short.

4 Responses to An unexpected cause of pain: being short

  1. Thank you. The first thing I noticed on moving into our new home was that I can’t reach any shelf past the first one in the overhead kitchen cabinets. No wonder all the ceilings here are 8 feet or more! The prior owners must have been giants. At 5’2″ (and I’m sticking with that even if my doctor says I have, in fact, shrunk over the years), it’s been a little tough adjusting. At least we were able to have the shower head lowered when we had the bathroom renovated – the old shower head was so high, we couldn’t even reach it to change the setting. I still have to stand on a stepladder to change the shower curtain, but that’s because my contractor was an idiot (a tall one). Fortunately, I don’t have arthritis in my feet, or at least not too badly, so reaching up on toe-tip hasn’t as yet become a burden.

    PS – I imagine you have one of those grabber devices for getting stuff down from high places? If not, get one – they’re awesome. I’m beginning to think I should carry one to the grocery store because it seems lately like everything I want is always on the top shelf – and usually at the very back of the shelf.

    • chronicrants says:

      Oh yes, reaching shower heads is ridiculous, too! It sounds like you live in a place designed by a tall person. I got very lucky that I can actually reach the microwave that’s installed over my stove. It’s not easy – I reach up more than most people which isn’t great for my neck or shoulders, and balancing full dishes isn’t ideal, but at least I can do it! In so many kitchens I can’t….

      Great idea about the grabber! I can’t use it because of the joint pain in my hands, but I bet it will be very useful for others who are reading this.

  2. Tamara Epps says:

    Thankfully I haven’t had any issues with my feet (other than them being small), despite it running in my family; but I can certainly relate to all the issues of being short. I am 4’10” and my main problem is reaching the floor when I’m sitting down. Basically, unless there’s a step for my feet, chances are I am sitting with my legs tucked under me or crossed. The first is fine but I have to move fairly regularly if I don’t want them to cramp up, which uses extra energy. The second is fine until I have to lean forward to reach something and I lose my balance. It is only recently I realised it is the way I sit that likely causes a lot of my back and neck pain, but it wasn’t until I read this post that it even occurred to me that I sit that way because I’m short. As for when I’m in the supermarket, I regularly use my walking stick to reach items!

    • chronicrants says:

      Tamara, I’m sorry to hear you have the same problem with sitting! It’s it frustrating that chairs and couches aren’t made for people closer to our size? I’m glad you can use your stick to get things off shelves at least. I bet if I tried that I would just break everything 😉

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