Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy

Learn everything you need to know about occupational therapy and physical therapy and how they compare and differ from each other.
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Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy

People often get occupational therapy and physical therapy confused. While both provide rehabilitation to help patients perform everyday tasks, each therapy takes a different approach to help people get back to their life before their accident, injury, or illness.  From an overarching perspective, the two differ in that occupational therapy focuses primarily on improving a person’s ability to perform daily living tasks, while physical therapy focuses on improving the movement and/or performance of the human body. Often used in tandem with each other, both therapies are a critical piece in the rehabilitation process.

First, and to be more specific, a physical therapist treats a patient’s problem from a biomechanical point of view.  Physical therapy tries to improve range of motion, align bones and joints, strengthen muscles, improve flexibility, and/or lessen pain in order for the patient to make progress.  A therapist uses exercises, massage, heat, muscle stimulation, and other techniques to achieve these goals. Given their primary focus, patients often see physical therapists very early in their treatment or rehabilitation program.

Secondly, an occupational therapist is charged with treating the whole person. No matter what the root cause is, whether physical or cognitive, of the patient’s illness or injury, occupational therapists help people to re-engage in their daily life to their fullest ability.  They look at not only the specific reason someone’s participation in activities has changed but also at what else in the person’s life will be affected as a result.

To illustrate, imagine that a woman recently broke her leg.  Given the nature of the break, she is told she will be unable to return to some of her “normal” activities such as biking and running.  While recovering, she would not only meet with a physical therapist but would also meet with an occupational therapist to learn specific life skills again, as well as to discuss other potential impacts from the injury.  They would discuss topics such as: 

  1. Did she run with a group and if so, will she miss the camaraderie?  
  2. Clearly, exercise is important to her, so what other forms of exercise could she do?
  3. Will there be significant impacts on her career from the injury?

While the fields of occupational and physical therapy are distinct, there are also areas of overlap and/or patients may progress from one therapy to another.  For example, a stroke patient often starts with a physical therapist to build back muscle strength and range of motion. Then later, this same patient starts seeing an occupational therapist to practice basic life skills such as bathing, dressing, eating and walking once their strength has improved.  In this scenario, despite their areas of primary focus, both therapists would likely educate on how to prevent and avoid injuries, assist with improving the ability to perform daily activities, and help the patient to understand the healing process.

Given the ongoing and close interaction with patients, certain personal attributes lead to more success in these careers.  Key is being able to manage and work through a patient’s emotions. They are very often in a heightened emotional state while going through therapy, and given the highs, lows and “everything in between” of therapy, patients show up in different moods on different days.  It is most important for therapists to have: 

  1. Strong interpersonal skills
  2. Patience
  3. Level-headedness
  4. Intuition about when to push a patient and when to give them support
  5. Excellent problem solving and critical thinking skills

If pursuing a career in physical or occupational therapy, one must first go through a rather rigorous education.  Competition is tough, and academic performance matters when applying for post-graduate schools and internships. In addition to the college basics, science classes such as anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, physics, psychology are all required as an undergraduate.  Added to that, classes like statistics, medical terminology, abnormal psychology, work & industry, and kinesiology may be required.  

Both of these career choices offer a rewarding, respected profession that is in high demand.  In fact, the growth outlook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is 18% for occupational therapy and 22% for physical therapy over the 10-year period from 2018 to 2028.

Both of these figures are higher than the average, therefore, indicate a higher than average employment rate for individuals graduating with these degrees. Additionally, these fields are extremely rewarding.  Therapists work with individuals from all walks of life with a wide variety of health issues and get to see patient’s progress as they take steps toward more independence, recovery from injury, and/or pain-free movement.

OT vs PT

When comparing occupational therapy vs physical therapy the main difference is that:

  • The goal of OT is to improve the patient’s ability to be independent in performing daily life activities (ADL: Activities of Daily Living)
  • The goal of PT is to help the patient improve their body movement.

From this main difference comes another distinction between the two fields:

  • OT focuses on fine motor function
  • PT focuses on mobility and stability

For example, a Physical Therapist or a Physical Therapist Assistant would spend their time evaluating patients, developing treatment plans, and exercising to restore mobility in the human body.

PT Exercises may be designed to:

  • Help the patient get in and out of bed or a car
  • Walk or run again
  • Squat or jump with an increased range of motion

Meanwhile, an Occupational Therapist, or an Occupational Therapy Assistant, would spend their time evaluating patients, defining occupations, and teaching the clients to use adaptive equipment to carry out their occupations.

OT Occupations may include tasks such as:

  • Driving with a disability
  • Using public transit options
  • Walking, using ramps or stairs, etc

So, although the duties sound similar, the roles and goals of each profession are different.

The PT is focused on the body and movement while the OT is focused on the daily living tasks and making sure the client can perform them independently.

Video Explanations from OT vs PT Professionals

Here are some videos of OT and PT professionals explaining the differences within their industries.

These videos point out that the goal in OT is to enable clients to live as independently as possible doing the things (occupations) that they want and need in life.

Meanwhile, PT is focused on mobility, movement, strength, and practicing functional movements the patient needs to work on.

What is Occupational Therapy? OT vs PT

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy: What’s the Difference?

Pediatric OT vs Pediatric PT

This video explains the differences between OT and PT for children.

It points out that OT helps children with independence in their daily lives including personal hygiene, play activities, and school activities.

Meanwhile, PT focuses on strengthening the children’s muscles, improving mobility, and practicing skills like crawling, sitting, walking, etc.

Occupational vs Physical Therapy in a Pediatric Setting

OT vs PT Takeaways

So, yes, the fields of OT and PT are related.

And sometimes you will even find professionals within the fields working side by side on the same clients.

But there are major differences in what PT professionals and OT professionals do.

Here are the main takeaways:

  • OT focuses on helping the client function independently in their daily activities
  • PT focuses on restoring mobility in the client’s body movement
  • OT works with elderly, disabled, and special needs children most commonly
  • PT works with all of the above types of patients but also oftentimes with athletes to help their mobility

Both OT and PT professions are rated to be highly satisfying and rewarding.

Additionally, each field is projected to grow substantially over the next decade according to the BLS.

Meanwhile, salaries are competitive and educational requirements are almost identical.

So, choosing PT vs OT is definitely an important decision to make. But both careers will be very rewarding.

If you are interested in working in Occupational Therapy or Physical Therapy, then click the blue find schools button to find nearby and online OT and PT programs.

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