Help for hands |

Help for hands

Dan Thrift/Tahoe TribuneTherapist Jana Mortellaro, left, makes sure Teresa Sullivan does not overexert herself while picking up blocks in an effort to strengthen her hand muscles.

Try eating cereal with your hands tied behind your back. People with hand and arm injuries are put in this predicament on a continual basis.

To the patients’ benefit, those in the fields of occupational and physical health turned hand therapy into a speciality. Hand therapy came on the scene in the late 1980s.

Like many aspects of living in South Lake Tahoe, the demand for such care has fluctuated.

“Right now, this is our busiest season,” said Jana Mortellaro, a certified hand therapist who received the coveted credentials in November — the start of the ski season.

Mortellaro said she mostly sees fractures from the snow-riding enthusiasts, but injuries also result from accidents involving hand mutilations and repetitive activity at work.

The hand therapist treats the elbows, wrists and hands of grocery checkers, writers, dealers and veterinarian technicians like Teresa Sullivan — who works for Dr. Sharon Burns in South Lake Tahoe.

Enduring more than five years of pain, Sullivan injured her wrist while restraining animals and performing duties that required sustaining a grip for a prolonged period of time — day after day.

“I use my hands and wrists for everything I do,” the vet technician said.

When she couldn’t lift her arm to brush her hair or her teeth, Sullivan knew something had to be done.

Following surgery Dec. 13 for carpal tunnel syndrome in her left hand after a similar procedure on her right hand nine months before, Sullivan sought therapy after trying homeopathic remedies.

The surgery, involving cutting a ligament to open the space where the nerve runs, required resting her wrist for three weeks before entering into six weeks of therapy.

She attends three 45-minute sessions each week.

“It’s made a huge difference. It’s not as tight and stiff,” Sullivan said, rolling a wrist bar back and forth on a table in Barton’s Occupational Health Department.

She moved on to picking up 1-by-1 inch blocks with a spring-loaded forearm exerciser.

“When I first did this, I felt silly,” Sullivan said, straining to pick up one cube.

Exercises are designed to strengthen and increase range of motion.

After surgery, there’s the concern of scar tissue forming. The key to a successful recovery involves moderate activity.

“Truly, it’s a balance,” said Mortellaro, who shares patients in the region with hand therapists in Carson City, Sacramento and Reno. “It’s becoming a specialty area because it’s needed as a part of rehabilitation.”

Through hand rehabilitation, Barton treats arthritis, burns, musculoskeletal disorders, nerve injuries and tendinitis through modes of treatment including pain management, therapeutic exercises, ultrasound, splinting and even whirlpool therapy.

— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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