Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: What’s the Difference? - Ivy Rehab

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

A rehabilitation team is a group of professionals who assist following an injury, a hospitalization, or surrounding a surgical procedure. This team is made up of both occupational therapists and physical therapists, who work jointly to help individuals improve independence, regain abilities to engage in regular daily activities, and make modifications to self or environment to maximize safety.

While recovering from a physical injury, it’s important know what your treatment plan is. A patient receiving physical or occupational therapy treatment may not recognize which type of therapist is treating them, which is why there can be confusion at times between occupational vs physical therapy. This is often because the end goal of these two professions is so similar: to return the patient to the highest level of function in the safest environment possible. Both physical and occupational therapists cater treatment to the specific needs of a patient but have a different lens by which a patient is viewed.

What is the Difference Between the Two?  

The main difference between an OT and PT is that physical therapists hone in on individual pain relief and increasing mobility, while occupational therapists work to help patients live as independently as possible, in a variety of ways. Let’s compare specific differences below…

Occupational Therapist: 

  • Focuses on all daily tasks or “occupations,” including dressing, bathing, cooking, laundry, driving, mowing the lawn, and other functional activities
  • Evaluates the environment in which a person lives to enhance safety 
  • Recommends occupational therapy exercises and trains on the use of equipment for safety in the home or for personal use to promote independence 
  • Assesses and modifies treatment accordingly for visual and cognitive impairments 
  • Modifies routines and schedules to enhance engagement in everyday activities 

Physical Therapist: 

  • Focuses on the body and how it moves – muscle strength, power, tissue restrictions, pain, and more
  • Assesses balance and mobility – how to we optimize walking and moving within our environment 
  • Recommends and trains use of ambulatory devices such as walkers or wheelchairs when needed 
  • Physical Therapists are movement specialists – how we move,  what are the barriers to optimum movement, and how can we restore optimum movement and function 

Both OTs and PTs work with neurological impairments and orthopedic problems as well as special populations like pelvic health, vestibular and balance problems, and chronic pain. OTs and PTs also assess your physical limitations to determine the best therapeutic treatment to regain physical function. They both focus on fine and gross motor skills with the ultimate goal of restoring and maximizing function to make daily life tasks easier

Let’s See How They Work Together

Following a hip replacement, a physical therapist will assess the movement and strength of the hip, the ability to walk with or without a device, and the ability to navigate stairs. An occupational therapist will then recommend equipment for the bathroom to increase ease for toileting and showering, review dressing techniques with a leg that has restricted movement, and set up the home to increase ease of navigation.

The Bottom Line

Whatever is your rehabilitative treatment plan, it is important to have both members of the rehabilitation team for enhancing outcomes in daily living, and each profession provides pertinent, yet specialized care to make this happen.

Article by: Luisa Aggio, OTR/L, CHT

Ivy Rehab Network, Progress PT, University City PA

Luisa Aggio is an OT/CHT who has been working in hands for 8+ years. She has been working for the Progress PT branch of Ivy. Progress’s hand therapy department started with one clinic and has now expanded to 4 clinics within Philadelphia.

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