What is the Difference Between Occupational Therapy & Physical Therapy?

Rehabilitative care includes both physical therapy and occupational therapy. The goal of rehabilitative care is to improve or prevent a worsening in your condition or quality of life due to surgery, injury, or illness. While there are some similarities, there are also significant differences between physical therapy and occupational therapy.

This article will look more closely at both types of therapies, the benefits they provide, and how they differ.

What are the key differences?

Physical therapy, abbreviated as PT, aims to improve your movement, mobility, and function. A physical therapist may accomplish this through the use of a variety of exercises, stretches, and other physical activities. As part of their recovery, a person who has had knee replacement surgery, for example, may visit a physical therapist. The physical therapist will assist the patient in strengthening and increasing the range of motion in their knee joint. As a result, they are able to move more freely and comfortably.

Occupational therapy, abbreviated as OT, aims to make daily tasks easier for you to complete.  This therapy focuses on improving your fine and gross motor skills so you can perform specific daily tasks. The occupational therapist will also help you make your home or school environment more conducive to daily activities. An occupational therapist, for example, may help someone recovering from a stroke in relearning how to do daily tasks such as dressing or eating with utensils. They may also make modifications to the home, such as installing a grab bar in the shower.

What are the similarities?

Despite their differences, PT and OT are similar in some ways. These are some examples:

• The overall goal. Physical therapy and occupational therapy both aim to improve your overall functioning, quality of life, and knowledge of how to maintain your health and well-being.

• Conditions. There is significant overlap in the medical conditions for which both therapies may be recommended.

• Design. Hands-on care that is tailored to the patient’s specific needs is provided by both types of therapy.

• Tasks. The tasks performed may have some overlap. Occupational therapists, for example, may also teach stretches or exercises. Physical therapists may work with patients on movements that will help in daily activities such as getting in and out of the tub.

• Goals and monitoring Both types of therapy establish goals and track your progress toward achieving them.

What exactly is the job of a Physical Therapist?

Let’s take a closer look at what a physical therapist does now that we’ve discussed the differences and similarities between PT and OT.

What are the goals of Physical Therapy?

The overall goals of physical therapy are to:

• improve or restore movement, strength, and range of motion

• decrease pain

• prevent your condition from worsening

• educate you on ways to maintain your overall fitness and functionality.

When is Physical Therapy needed?

When a condition impairs your movement or range of motion, physical therapy is frequently recommended. PT can be used for:

• improving mobility after an injury

• pain management

• recovering from a surgical procedure

• joint conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis

• neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke recovery

• lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis

• urinary incontinence

• heart conditions such as heart failure and recovery from a heart attack

• cancer

What type of therapy can you expect?

The type of therapy you receive will be tailored to your specific requirements. To develop a plan and goals for your therapy, the physical therapist will carefully review your medical history and current health condition.

Physical therapists employ a wide range of techniques, including:

• targeted exercises

• stretching

• hands-on manipulation

• hot and cold application

• massage

• ultrasound

• electrical stimulation

Where can you receive Physical Therapy?

Physical therapists work in various settings, including, but not limited to:

  • inpatient facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes
  • outpatient clinics or offices
  • home health agencies
  • schools
  • fitness centers.

What does an Occupational Therapist do?

Let’s take a closer look at OT and what it entails.

What is the purpose of Occupational Therapy?

The overarching goals of OT are to: 

• maximize your ability to perform various daily tasks safely and effectively

• Promote independence and productivity.

• Educate caregivers on how to assist someone who is undergoing OT

When is Occupational Therapy needed?

When a condition or illness impairs your ability to perform daily tasks, OT may be recommended. Among the conditions for which OT may be used are:

• injury or surgery recovery

• pain management

• neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, or stroke recovery

• joint disorders such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis

• hand disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger

• developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, learning disorders, and intellectual disabilities.

• mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety

• Alzheimer’s disease or dementia

What type of therapy can you expect?

The occupational therapist will assess your needs by reviewing your medical history and current condition. They will then use this information to create a therapy plan and establish specific goals.

Some of the things that may be involved as part of Occupational Therapy include:

• assisting you in learning or relearning how to perform daily tasks such as dressing, bathing, and eating • assessing your home, workplace, or school to identify ways to make your daily tasks easier

• instructing you on how to use assistive devices like wheelchairs and walkers

• assisting you with fine motor skills tasks such as writing or buttoning a shirt

• training you on how to get into and out of chairs, beds, and bathtubs safely

• showing exercises that can be performed to help increase flexibility or reduce pain

• teaching you stress-management strategies

• assisting you with programs that can help you return to work

• educating your loved ones and caregivers on how to effectively support you in your daily life.

Where can you receive Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapists work in various settings, including:

• inpatient facilities, such as nursing homes and hospitals

• outpatient clinics or offices

• mental health facilities

• schools; and

• home health agencies.

Which Therapy to Choose?

So, how do you know which therapy is best for you? That is dependent on your condition and your specific requirements.

If you have a condition that makes it difficult for you to walk or move a body part without pain, you should consult a physical therapist. They can help you reduce pain and improve your mobility, strength, and range of motion by using targeted exercises, stretches, and other techniques.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that you’re having difficulty performing daily tasks like picking up objects or getting dressed. Working with an occupational therapist, in this case, could help improve the motor skills required for these specific tasks.

It’s critical to consult with your doctor about the best type of therapy for you. They can advise you on the advantages of each therapy and which one is best suited to your specific needs.

The Bottom Line     

Rehabilitative care includes physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT). They have similar goals and treat many of the same conditions, but they also have differences. Physical therapy aims to restore or improve movement, strength, and range of motion. The goal of occupational therapy is to improve the motor skills needed to perform daily tasks. The type of therapy you choose is determined by your specific condition and needs. Working closely with your doctor can assist you in determining which therapy is best suited to you and your objectives.