Offering therapy in many forms at Portage

When most people hear “occupational therapy,” they might think of some kind of program meant to help people get jobs.

In the world of medicine, it has a different definition.

“The occupational professional works on activities that you might take for granted every day: can you manage at home, can you cook, can you mow the lawn, can you participate in leisure activities,” explains Susan Mills, licensed occupational therapist and certified hand therapist at U.P. Health System-Portage hospital. “Occupation means the tasks that we do every day to fulfill the roles in our lives.”

Mills was the first occupational therapist hired at Portage 23 years ago as a recent graduate. Since then she has been involved in the growth of the program at Portage and has achieved additional licensing and specialization in her field.

“I love what I do and I love doing it here,” Mills said, describing her move to the area from New Orleans after her husband was offered a job at Michigan Tech. “This is the place I’ve chosen to work, I’ve always wanted to be here.”

Mills says that she finds her work interesting and challenging. It also provides a sense of gratification when she can help people return to activities that they were previously unable to do.

Patients might meet Mills after they have a surgery, but many meet with her for simpler and more common issues, such as tendonitis.

Tendonitis is the inflammation of chord-like structures in the body that attach muscle to bones which causes pain with certain movements.

The issue is pretty characteristic of those that Mills deals with every day.

“Often we will wait and think ‘it will go away’ and it only gets worse over time. Then it can move from something acute to something chronic and that can be more difficult to work with,” she said.

Injuries like this are often caused by activities that require excessive force, repetition or sudden bursts of energy.

These sorts of injuries can be common this time of year, when the weather is nice and people are in a hurry to get back to work outside.

Everyone has what Mills calls “a window of normal activity” that many of us open and close seasonally. When we try to open that window too quickly, it can lead to problems.

“Suddenly we’re all excited to go out and rake and clean up the yard, but you should ease into things like that,” said Mills. “You want to ease into the activities that you haven’t done all winter.”

After a patient has been referred to Mills, the first step is an evaluation. This involves looking at the patient’s medical history, finding out what their challenges are and evaluating their strength and range of motion through a range of physical tests.

After the evaluation, a treatment plan is created to manage pain and lead to the injury healing. This can be done through prescribing rest, custom splints or various exercises.

The final steps involve recovering strength and range of motion so that the patient can return to doing whatever activities they were unable to do due to their condition.

“We work with the individual to be very individualistic to their goals,” said Mills. “We problem-solve and try to get creative about ‘how can we do that?'”

Treating the patient also means informing them on how to take care of their injury – and prevent new ones – after they leave the office.

“Education is a big part of it. It’s not the only part, but it is so critical,” said Mills.

They may learn that too much movement or too little can prevent an injury from healing properly. This means that the patient needs to feel comfortable using the injured hand but also understand their limitations and not use it too much.

As a hand therapist, Mills sees patients for issues including arthritis, broken bones, traumatic injuries, finger loss, carpal tunnel, tendonitis and other conditions.

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