While you may have heard of both physical therapy and occupational therapy, you may be curious about their differences and similarities. The notion of physical therapy is often associated with enduring a painful rehabilitation process after a joint surgery such as total knee replacement or shoulder surgery. Otherwise, physical therapy may be thought of as teaching someone to walk with crutches or a walker.
An informal census reveals many people think of occupational therapist as somehow assisting people with work-related functional issues, or return-to-work-type therapy. While there is some slight truth to some of these two descriptions, these two distinct but similar rehabilitation disciplines offer a great deal more.
Both PT and OT educational requirements consist of a master’s degree program. Qualified practitioners of each are state licensed, after passing national registration exams. Each program focuses on similar subjects but the emphases for the two fields vary.
Occupational therapists, in general, focus on restoring or enhancing activities of daily living, work, and leisure functioning. They facilitate the learning of skills and functions essential for adaptation and productivity, diminish or correct pathology, and promote and/or maintain health.
Physical therapists focus on alleviating physical impairments and functional limitations, preventing injury and promoting maintenance of fitness, health and quality of life.
Since the definitions of OT and PT sound very similar, the best way to distinguish them is by looking at how they function side by side in various settings. In the school system, for example, the OT works with writing skills. The PT works with physical issues such as being able to sit, walk, and perform physical tasks to better participate in learning. In a nursing home, OT’s work with skills such as dressing, bathing, grooming, self feeding, eating/swallowing, and a host of other self-care skills to enhance a person’s independence with or without modifications. Some specialize in wheelchair fitting and seating to provide for maximum independence. Others work with coping skills needed to adjust to a new diagnosis or new living environment. They work with family and support systems to improve the overall quality of life in all facets of the rehabilitative process.
Physical therapists in a nursing home often focus on skills such as getting a person strong enough to get out of bed, and regain mobility to walk and use their arms. The focus is to regain strength, endurance, balance and mobility to perform particular functional skills in which the OT will train them in.
In outpatient settings, of course, the lines may blur much more than in those specific examples. Unless an OT has a specialty such as hand rehabilitation or splinting, OT’s and PT’s often use very similar techniques to achieve very similar goals. In a manual therapy practice that accepts insurance, OT’s and PT’s may even work from the same evaluation and bring their unique perspectives to an integrated delivery system that significantly benefits a patient’s rehabilitation process.
Working separately, sequentially or together, PT’s and OT’s aim to increase the patient’s comfort, overall health and quality of life.