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

This content was updated for accuracy and relevance on 09/16/2022

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 to 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 therapy 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 and injury prevention  
  • 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 everyday tasks, routines and schedules to enhance engagement in everyday activities
  • Focuses and improves a person’s fine motor skills

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.

When Do You Need A Physical Therapist?

You may benefit from  physical therapy when a condition limits or affects your range of motion. Physical therapists provide the following services:

  • Treatment after an injury or surgery
  • Pain management options
  • Treatment for joint conditions such as arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis
  • Therapy after diagnosis of a neurological disorder like Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease, or after a stroke
  • Therapy for conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger
  • Helping to improve lung function for conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Treatment after recovery from a heart attack or heart condition
  • Treatment for cancer patients

When Do You Need An Occupational Therapist?

Your physician may recommend an OT if an injury or illness has affected your ability to do your daily activities. Occupational therapists provide the following service:

  • Therapy after injury or surgery
  • Provide pain management options
  • Therapy after diagnosis of a joint condition like arthritis
  • Therapy after diagnosis of a neurological disorder like MS
  • Treatment for patients with developmental needs, learning disorders, and intellectual disabilities
  • Teaching patients how to use assistive devices like walkers
  • Preparing patients to return to work after illness or injury
  • Educating caregivers on how to support patients’ daily activities

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.

Sources:

  1. Healthline. Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: What to Know. https://www.healthline.com/health/occupational-therapy-vs-physical-therapy

The medical information contained herein is provided as an information resource only, and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultation with healthcare professionals. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. IvyRehab Network, Inc. disclaims any and all responsibility, and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained herein.

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