Post Polio

In Australia, as in many other countries polio was a major health problem until the early 1950’s when effective vaccines became available. Frequently those affected were very young children who often suffered partial or total limb paralysis and in the worst cases major breathing dysfunction. Thankfully this illness is no longer a major health problem and although it is not yet completely eradicated, major health initiatives in the remaining countries where polio still persists make eradication a realistic goal within the next few years.

Unfortunately the initial effects of polio are not the end of the story so far as polio sufferers are concerned. Often, some 30 or 40 years after the initial illness, polio sufferers (many of who may have partially recovered function) encounter renewed deterioration often coupled with increasing lack of energy and inability to carry on with normal activities. This late deterioration, which occurs to some extent in up to 70% of polio sufferers, is known as “Post Polio Syndrome” (PPS). There is now a considerable amount of internet material describing these problems – a brief summary of the effects and possible causes is here

Much of the internet content describes how some very courageous people tackle enormous difficulties. They have my total admiration.

My own encounter with polio was in 1949 and (unusually) the effect was in the left upper arm – ultimately resulting in the destruction of the left deltoid muscle. Like so many other polio sufferers I was however able to overcome the problem even to the extent of achieving a fair degree of proficiency in both piano and organ – though of course not without a good deal more pain and effort than if I had not contacted polio. Some 18 years ago (1983) after completing a major organ performance examination (which of course had involved some very sustained practice) I began to notice even more weakness that usual; to the extent that pieces that I could play quite well began to become problematic. The major difficulty was that my endurance started to fall away alarmingly. Fortunately I was given excellent advice at that time even though PPS was then little known. The gist of that advice was that I had to find a way to play organ without the physical strain on my left arm unless I wanted to lose further arm function.

The solution,and a very successful one, has turned out to be the use of a flail arm splint – a use of this splint to facilitate the playing of a keyboard musical instrument was at that time a completely novel application of this type of device. I personally have still not heard of this type of use in this country. These photos show how it works and enables me to function as an organist at professional level – something which I had at one time thought would become impossible.

These shots show the flail arm worn externally to show its operation. On a small two manual instrument there is no difficulty in changing manuals (keyboards). The arm is firmly supported by the flail pressing against the shoulder blade – thus removing any muscular stress.

In normal use, worn under a shirt, the flail arm brace is unobtrusive but very effective. A simple tubular support bandage around the upper arm prevents skin damage from the upper strap which needs to be quite tight.