April is Occupational Therapy Appreciation month, so thank you to all of the occupational therapists out there who have made a difference in their patients’ lives. For those who may not know, occupational therapists (OT) help with braces and splints, with executive functioning, and with helping their patients perform tasks without strain or injury. They even help patients regain skills they may have lost due to a stroke, surgery, accident or other event. In short, they help many of us live our best lives by remaining as functional and independent as possible.
I never thought that an occupational therapist would be much help to me. In truth, I didn’t really know what they did, and I didn’t think I had “those kinds of problems.” When I was 18, I went to a pediatric pain rehabilitation center for my chronic regional pain syndrome (CRPS). There, an OT was in charge of our desensitization. We started off with cotton balls and ended up with children’s toys that induced lego-like agony. Needless to say, this was not my favorite thing to do, and she was not my favorite person. But my distaste was not because of who she was as a person or even as an OT. It was the amount of pain I had to go through in her company. Unfortunately for her, it was not as easy to make OT as fun as physical therapy. At least PT involved games! For me, the end goal of OT was to be able to wear jeans. I had been wearing flowing pajama bottoms, shorts, and wide leg yoga pants for months, because I couldn’t stand to have anything touch my legs. In a few months, I was going away to college and wanted to be able to wear normal pants: khakis, corduroys, and of course, jeans. The increasing difficulty of the desensitization was helpful in getting me to that level.
Only recently have I seen an OT again. Following my EDS diagnosis, I realized my fingers were very bendy. I wondered if that was responsible for some of my hand and finger pain, particularly after hours of knitting or typing. I purchased inexpensive plastic ring splints and found that they helped, but I wanted to try silver ring splints to see if they were more comfortable (especially on my thumbs). The OT was not only helpful with that, but she also asked what I did for fun and work to see where she could offer additional support. I told her about all of the work I do on the computer, and how sometimes it hurts my wrist and thumb as the base is hypermobile. She suggested a metal thumb brace. It has taken some getting used to, and I don’t always wear it. It is a great help, however, and I can still wear my brace and thumb splint at the same time.
I also talked about how often I knit. She wanted to know how I typically knit, and I demonstrated how I scrunch up so I could rest my elbows/forearms on my thighs. I did this, it seems, because I needed the support. So she asked me to find a pillow or some other device that would give me the support I needed while sitting properly. This would allow me to knit or work as frequently and for as long as I want (mostly) without fear of injury. Of course, rest is still important, but I am in a better position to prevent issues now than I was before.
That is what occupational therapists do. They show us how to do things in a way that will not cause further pain and suffering. They teach us to safely live our lives, enjoy activities and complete our chores. Having these tools in our toolboxes makes our existence much easier. The truth is that when you get a new pain or a chronic illness, adaptation is necessary. There is a learning curve in figuring out how to do things in the body that you have now, and often you need help. OTs make that transition easier by providing the skills and the tools that we need for us to thrive as independently as possible.