Physical therapy student blends treatment, gymnastics


physical therapy students training

(From left) Michelle Millen, a Slippery Rock University doctor of physical therapy student from York, works with trainer Max Coffin. Millen recently completed a five-week clinical rotation studying physical therapy as it pertains to gymnastics. (Photo courtesy of Millen.)

March 14, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - High bars and stress fractures. Floor routines and hip injuries. Michelle Millen, a Slippery Rock University doctor of physical therapy student from York, hopes to combine her passion for gymnastics and physical therapy into a career helping gymnasts overcome injuries.

Michelle Millen


Millen, founder of the Gymnastics Club at SRU, made headway toward her goal recently by completing a five-week clinical rotation with David Tilley, a physical therapist and educator in Boston, Massachusetts. He specializes in bridging the gap between movement science and treatment for gymnasts.

"One of my physical therapy career goals is to become a physical therapist that has a niche working with gymnasts," said Millen, a 2014 SRU biology graduate. "Currently, there are not many clinicians that specialize with this patient population. Most specialize more generally, like sports physical therapy, or more popular sports like football or baseball."

Millen said she reached out to Tilley and expressed interest in working with him. Tilley owns SHIFT and travels the country giving seminars to coaches and health care providers about changes that can be made in treating gymnasts.

Nancy Shipe, SRU assistant professor of physical therapy, helped arranged Millen's experience.

Millen, a third year student in SRU's doctor of physical therapy program, said the SHIFT effort complemented elective classes she has taken at SRU in orthopedics, pediatrics and acute rehabilitation.

In Boston, Millen said she practiced her general PT skills and worked with high-level gymnasts and college athletes in other sports. She said she gained much insight into injury prevention, treatment modalities and wellness.

Millen said she worked with patients, learned more about anatomy and studied treatment plans that provide rehabilitation and good physical health strategies for post-injury performance. She participated in team practice at Tilley's gym for a bird's eye view of warm-ups, routines and conditioning.

Common injuries endured by gymnasts, she said, include low back pain, factures and hip and shoulder pain. She learned that many of these injuries are preventable with altered training techniques, such as arching the back. She said many shoulder and hip injuries arise from incorrect stretching techniques.

Many shoulder and hip injuries stem from incorrect stretching techniques that don't target tight muscles and instead cause joint instability, she said.

Millen, who was asked to write a blog about the experience for the SHIFT website, said the collaboration gave her more confidence to pinpoint her career toward helping gymnasts.

"During physical therapy for gymnasts, much of my job as a physical therapist would be to educate my patients about altering some of their training methods to be more biomechanically safe, and to come up with a rehabilitation program that is challenging enough and specific enough to prepare gymnasts for the high demands of gymnastics," Millen said. "Gymnastics is a sport that is steeped in tradition and aesthetics, but now that science and research are making great strides, there are a few adjustments that should be made to the sport that will keep gymnasts healthier and allow their careers to last longer."

Millen said her love for science and interest in learning more about the human body led her to the doctor of physical therapy program.

She said she has been involved in gymnastics since she was 3, competing through college and then coaching. She founded the Gymnastics Club at SRU.

"A lot of the lessons I learned from gymnastics have helped me outside of the gym, especially in school. I have become very good at dealing with stress, setting high goals and working hard to reach those goals. Additionally, gymnastics has ignited my curiosity about how the body works. Some skills in gymnastics are so awe-inspiring, but it all boils down to physics and body mechanics," she said.

The Gymnastics Club competes in a club league against teams from Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pittsburgh, Eastern Michigan University, Maryland University and Kent State University. Millen served as president of the club for three years and remains a member.

"I love the 'awe factor' of gymnastics," she said. "Even after a long competitive career and years as a gymnastics coach, I'm still awe-struck watching gymnastics on TV or even watching gymnasts I know. Plus, the feeling of learning a new skill yourself is indescribable."

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