What’s the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy?

difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy

If you are recovering from a surgery or an injury or if a health condition is getting in the way of your daily activities, you may be considering physical therapy, occupational therapy or both. So, what’s the difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy? To understand the differences it helps to understand what a Physical Therapist (PT) or Occupational Therapist (OT) actually does.

Differences Between OT’s & PT’s

While PT’s and OT’s differ in their areas of focus, both play important roles in helping people heal from injuries,  and recover strength and flexibility. Physical Therapists typically evaluate and treat patients who have injuries, birth defects, and medical conditions. Occupational Therapists address those same challenges and teach patients (and family members) how to become more independent in their everyday lives.

The PT may work on stretching muscles and improving mobility to reduce pain and stiffness or heal an injury. The OT helps people re-think or re-learn daily activities at work and in the home. Activities such as getting dressed, working in the kitchen and garden, bathing and job-related tasks may be taught. If you are recovering from a hip replacement for example, the PT would work with you to help you regain your strength and mobility and then teach you how to walk into the kitchen. The OT would teach you ways to easily do things in the kitchen.

In physical therapy, a patient who has had a hip replaced may be given exercises to help stand from a chair and maintain balance. In occupational therapy, the patient would be taught how to comfortably and safely perform tasks at the counter. New techniques, tools, and adaptive equipment to reduce the chance of falling, or the strain on that new hip would be shared. For example, instead of bending down to retrieve an object you’ve dropped on the floor, you may learn how to use a long handled reacher to retrieve it.

Often, occupational therapy concentrates on the upper body (hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder) injuries and conditions. If you have hand pain or are recovering from a hand injury or surgery, the OT will work with you to help reduce the pain and swelling and will instruct you in exercises to help restore your hand and finger movement. Initial treatment like heat, ice, and ultrasound may be recommended, as well as exercises to improve your strength and flexibility.

Splints that help reduce the pain and swelling and promote healing may also be suggested. OT’s and some PT’s have additional training and certification as Hand Therapist’s. They have expertise in making custom hand splints to protect your hand or to help get your joints moving. The ultimate goal is to help get you back to being fully functional and independent.

PT’s and OT’s regularly work together to maximize a patient’s healing and help regain independence. Just as your medical team may include your internist who specializes in your general health, a cardiologist who specializes in your heart, and a rheumatologist who addresses your arthritis– Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy may be recommended together to address your physical strength, cognitive skills, coordination and the ability to regain and maintain a healthy, independent life.

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Our blogs are educational in nature and are not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Because your condition is unique to you, it is recommended that you consult with your health care provider before attempting any medical or therapeutic treatments. We are always happy to answer questions about products mentioned in our blogs, however, we cannot provide a diagnosis or medical advice

14 comments on “What’s the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy?

  1. Thank you for helping me understand that an occupational therapist is pretty much the same as a physical therapist, but they also work on helping those affected by injuries or medical conditions how to become more independent in their lives. I have a friend that has recently been told that she would need to have a foot amputated, which we are all working really hard to support her with. I might be able to help by looking into an occupational therapist that will be able to help her when she is recovering.

  2. Thanks for pointing out how physical therapy can help patients relieve pain and heal injuries. My father is still limping after a pretty serious road accident. He definitely wants to get his mobility back and reduce his pain, so I will be sure to advise him to look into physical therapy sessions to help him out.

  3. Thanks for the article, I feel like I know more about both occupational and physical therapy now. I didn’t realize that occupational therapy was more to teach people how to control their bodies in everyday situations. I think that’s really cool, my cousin has been having sessions to help him with this for years and now I realize that’s occupational therapy.

  4. My son has cerebral palsy and is in need of disability services. We are looking into occupational therapists to help him improve. Thanks for your comment about how occupational therapists help people with special needs perform the things they need to do on a day to day basis. This sounds like it’s just what he needs!

  5. This is enlightening. I didn’t know the difference. My nephew has special needs and we want him to live independently. We are now looking up some occupational therapists to help him.

  6. My mom has been having trouble doing things around the house lately and someone suggested that we take her to an occupational therapist. We have never heard of that before. I didn’t know they were like physical therapists, but helped the patients become more independent. That would be wonderful for my mom to know different ways on how she can do the tasks she used to, to make it easier for her. Thanks for the information! We will have to look around for an OT!

  7. Thank you for talking about how a physical therapist helps patients street muscles to improve the mobility of your body. I can see that taking the time to understand your needs can help you find the best therapist that can help you move freely again. My brother pulled a muscle playing soccer yesterday and has not decided where to go to get help, so I’ll share your post with him.

  8. Thanks for explaining this topic in a way that is easy to understand. I think a lot of people aren’t sure what the difference is between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy and this might lead them to seek the wrong type of therapy. Everyone is different and has different needs and I think that this post can help people understand and choose which type of therapy is best for them. Thanks!

  9. I liked that you talked about how physical therapy can help with stiffness after an injury has healed. It does seem like a good thing to be aware of if you get injured. My father’s knees have been super stiff lately and I wonder if physical therapy can help his knees.

  10. Great article and very well explained. I believe in professionals so this is a very useful article for everyone. Many thanks for your share.

  11. That’s interesting that OT often focuses on the upper body. I can see that that would help with fine motor skills. I guess that can help people with motor impairments.

  12. I had physical therapy for whiplash last year, and I regained a lot of strength from it. While I have never had occupational therapy, it seems like a great treatment for those who want to be more independent, like you said. It must be great to regain the ability to get dressed, work in the garden, and clean the house again!

  13. I have thought about doing occupational therapy. I think it would be great to help people’s lives out and make their lives a lot easier than before. That is what occupational therapists are supposed to do. They also make it so people can work better than they have in the past.

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