What Is the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupation Therapy?

What Is the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupation Therapy?


The terms physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT) are sometimes confused because they do share some similarities. However, there are also some key differences between the two every patient should be aware of.

PT and OT both help improve the patient’s quality of life and prevent decline due to injury, illness, or surgery. Physical therapy focuses on improving mobility, movement, and function. Occupational therapy helps patients improve gross and fine motor skills so they can perform daily tasks more effectively.

Keep reading to learn more about the differences between occupational therapy and physical therapy to determine which can help you achieve your own health and wellness goals.

Physical Therapy Overview 

Physical therapy is a branch of rehabilitative care that utilizes a program of stretches, exercises, and other physical activities to help the patient move the body and improve physical function and fitness.

Education is also an important component of a comprehensive physical therapy plan. Physical therapists explain why pain occurs, how specific exercises and stretches can correct these issues, and what the patient can do on their own to improve their outcome.

The American Physical Therapy Association refers to physical therapists as “movement experts.” More specifically, PTs are licensed, highly-skilled healthcare providers that work with people of all ages and abilities. Physical therapists practice in a variety of settings including hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, outpatient centers, sports facilities, schools, and private homes.

Physical Therapy Goals

Physical therapy has a wide range of goals depending on the patient’s age, condition, and symptoms.

Physical therapy helps patients:

  • Avoid surgery
  • Increase mobility, movement, and fitness
  • Manage age-related medical problems
  • Minimize the use of prescription medications
  • Reduce or manage pain
  • Prevent and/or recover from injuries
  • Prevent or improve chronic conditions

Did You Know? One study found that patients with low back pain who saw a physical therapist first were less likely to have a prescription for pain medication and spent less on out-of-pocket costs for treatment.

Who Can Benefit From Physical Therapy?

People of all ages, abilities, and stages of life can benefit from physical therapy, particularly those recovering from an injury, surgery, living with a disability, or dealing with an acute or chronic health condition.

Many different specialties fall under the physical therapy umbrella. Here are just a few:

Orthopedic physical therapists treat injuries involving the musculoskeletal system including persistent pain conditions, sprains, strains, and fractures while helping patients recover from orthopedic surgery. Neurological physical therapists focus on managing and treating symptoms associated with nervous system damage including stroke and spinal cord injury.

Geriatric physical therapists work with older adults who develop age-related procedures and conditions like arthritis, balance disorders, and joint replacements. Physical therapists can also focus on pediatric patients, working to improve and manage conditions affecting babies, children, and teens.

Occupational Therapy Overview

Regardless of age or stage of life, every person has meaningful activities–or occupations–they perform every day.

Our role in life determines these activities. Let’s think about a toddler’s daily tasks. Their occupations are as simple as learning, playing, and socializing. An adult’s occupations are more complex and may involve caring for home and family and working at their job.

A disability, injury, illness, or surgery can make it difficult to participate in these everyday tasks. Occupational therapy is a science-based, research-driven rehabilitative care that helps individuals do the activities they need and want to do, despite physical or cognitive limitations.

While physical therapy addresses “why” the patient is experiencing pain or mobility issues, occupational therapy works to accommodate the injury or disability, offering new ways for the patient to complete their daily activities.

The occupational therapist may visit and evaluate the person’s home, school, or job to recommend equipment and tools to adapt the environment to fit the patient. Occupational therapists also educate and assist caregivers and family members to better assist the patient at home and at school.

Occupational Therapy Goals

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, the goals of occupational therapy are to help patients:

  • Maintain or regain independence
  • Participate in regular activities that have personal value, including driving, socializing, and being a part of the community
  • Remain as healthy and productive as possible while living with a chronic condition
  • Use assistive devices to care for oneself

OT helps individuals live full and rewarding lives regardless of their abilities and health conditions.

Who Can Benefit From Occupational Therapy?

Just like with PT, people of all ages and abilities can benefit from occupational therapy.

Common OT interventions include helping people recover from an injury relearn everyday skills, helping children with disabilities participate in home, school, and social situations, and supporting aging patients who may be experiencing mental and physical changes.

Occupational therapists work with elderly patients, individuals with birth defects or injuries, and those with autism, processing disorders, or brain and spinal cord injuries.

As with PT, occupational therapy encompasses many different specialties. A Certified Hand Therapist is an occupational therapist (and can also be a physical therapist) who evaluates and treats post-operative injuries, repetitive injuries, and other conditions of the hand and arm.

Some OTs assist patients with the tasks of feeding, eating, and swallowing.  Others focus on elderly patients, helping them adapt to age-related changes to maintain their independence and quality of life.

Most schools employ or partner with occupational therapists who work with children in the educational setting. Their job is to support students’ achievement and help promote the positive behaviors needed for academic and non-academic growth and development.

How Are Physical and Occupational Therapy Similar?

There are several similarities between physical therapy and occupational therapy, which is why many patients include both in their holistic rehabilitative care plan. Here are some things PT and OT have in common.

Conditions Treated

There is considerable overlap among the conditions PT and OT are referred for. Your healthcare provider may recommend both therapies for a recent injury or a chronic illness.

For example, a patient living with arthritis can increase strength to support the joints and improve mobility with physical therapy. Occupational therapy can help the same person modify their home and workspace to reduce strain on their joints that can aggravate their condition.

Overall Goals

With physical therapy, the immediate goal may be to increase range of motion in the shoulder and decrease pain. An occupational therapist might show someone recovering from shoulder surgery how to use mobility aids to get dressed every morning. Both share the same objective: to improve the patient’s overall function, quality of life, and understanding of their own condition.

Personalized Treatment Plans

Rehabilitative care is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Every physical therapy and occupational therapy treatment plan is personally designed for the patient. These plans are based on their individual health history, lifestyle, limitations, and treatment goals. As the patient restores movement, mobility, and function, their goals may change over time.

Progress Assessments

Physical and occupational therapists monitor the patient’s progress to ensure they are moving in the right direction to achieve treatment goals and milestones.

In physical therapy, the goal might be to help a student-athlete recover after an injury and return to playing at a high skill level. For someone in occupational therapy, the goal might be to go back to work using certain accommodations after being injured in a car accident.

A skilled rehabilitative therapist knows the most effective course of treatment evolves based on how the patient is progressing with each session.

Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: Which Is Right for Me?

Because PT and OT have certain commonalities, it’s easy to feel confused about which is best for your needs. Typically, your healthcare provider recommends a specific type of rehabilitative therapy for your symptoms and your lifestyle.

Alternatively, you can schedule a consultation with a licensed physical therapist or occupational therapist to discuss your concerns and goals. If they feel therapy can be beneficial, you can reach out to your doctor to discuss obtaining a prescription for physical or occupational therapy.

Find a physical therapy clinic near you.

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