What is the Difference Between an Occupational Therapist and a Physical Therapist? Weighing Both Careers

What is the difference between an occupational therapist and a physical therapist? Let’s discuss both careers

What is the difference between an occupational therapist and a physical therapist? It’s the norm for people to confuse the fields of occupational therapy versus physical therapy. After all, the professionals in both fields work in similar settings and toward what appears like the same client health outcomes. 

But while both roles provide important hands-on rehabilitative work to help clients perform daily tasks as independently as possible, each field is different. Each profession uses a different approach to help people regain as much range of motion and task mastery as possible. Let’s explore the similarities and differences between both careers. 

Occupational Therapy Versus Physical Therapy

The main distinction between occupational therapy versus physical therapy is that:

  • Occupational therapy: focuses on improving a client’s ability to perform activities of daily living (ADL).
  • Physical therapy: focuses on improving a client’s ability to perform a range of movements of the human body. 

Now let’s consider each valuable medical role in more detail.

The Occupational Therapist 

An occupational therapist specializes in holistic treatment. A client may be recovering from a stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury, or developmental or cognitive disabilities that affect their motor skills, emotions, or behavior. An occupational therapist is quite instrumental in assisting these individuals to fully engage in daily activities.

According to the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, occupational therapists treat many facets of each client. They not only focus on the reasons for a person not being able to perform certain tasks, but also that individual’s roles and unique environment. An occupational therapist promotes each client’s wellness, rehabilitation, and habilitation

The Physical Therapist

A physical therapist adopts a biomechanical approach to treat a client’s impairment. They seek to improve the impairment by increasing mobility, aligning bones and joints, and/or lessening pain. 

A physical therapist’s goal is to help each client regain their range of motion and mobility using exercises, massage, and other techniques. Also, a physical therapist seeks to prevent injuries and help people avoid surgery or long-term dependence on medications. 

Occupational Therapy Versus Physical Therapy: The Overlap

Let’s consider the overlap between occupational therapy versus physical therapy

Occupational therapists and physical therapists serve two distinct roles, but there are commonalities. They both:

  • Educate people about how to prevent injuries.
  • Educate people about the rehabilitation process. 
  • Assist people with improving their ability to live, work, and fully engage in society.  

In many instances, clients may begin their rehabilitation with a physical therapist and then switch to an occupational therapist. For example, if someone is recovering from a severe stroke, they may first work with a physical therapist to recover their muscle strength. Then, once that occurs, they would work with an occupational therapist to practice and master basic life skills (like bathing, dressing, eating, and walking) that they had before the stroke.  

The Benefits of Choosing Occupational Therapy

Some of the benefits of being an occupational therapist include:

  • Career development: As an occupational therapist, you not only see your clients progress to independent, productive lives, but your expertise grows as well. Becoming a successful occupational therapist means honing your communication and interpersonal skills, effectively using time and resources, and exceptional problem-solving and critical thinking skills. 
  • Autonomy: Although you have to comply with regulations, you can apply your creativity and insight to provide high-value sessions for your clients. For example, you can take a child to a park instead of a rehabilitation center to incorporate some fun into their sessions. 
  • Specialization is possible: There are six core areas of specialization within occupational therapy. They include children and youth, productive aging, mental health, rehabilitation and disability, health and wellness, and work and industry. 

The Benefits of Choosing Physical Therapy

Some of the benefits of being a physical therapist include:

  • An interesting career: Since every patient’s case is unique, you will need to apply a variety of techniques for their effective treatment. Plus, you have other tasks to complete like working with team members and support staff and completing administrative tasks. It’s a fast-paced but rewarding career. 
  • Making a difference:  As a physical therapist, you’re likely among the first medical professionals that a client meets for rehabilitation. You will appreciate administering treatment that helps people reduce their pain and regain as much mobility as possible. You get to make a difference in their lives.
  • Learning new techniques: You will learn a variety of techniques such as how to apply pressure and temperatures to joints and muscles. But your career requires that you remain abreast of the latest treatments and techniques so that you can provide the best services to your clients. 
  • Travel opportunities: You can also choose to become a traveling physical therapist. You will be able to explore new places and change the lives of countless people around the country. Plus, you’re not confined to hospitals – you can work in fitness facilities, clinics, sports organizations, in-patient and out-patient facilities, nursing homes, and schools, etc. 

Dealing With Injuries

Occupational therapists and physical therapists are critical in dealing with injuries

Occupational therapists and physical therapists are among the team of health specialists that help with recovery. Some of the questions that arise include:

Can the Spinal Cord Repair Itself?

While our bodies can heal themselves, some traumas are too severe for that process to naturally occur. Also, unlike tissues in the peripheral nervous system, those in the central nervous system (that contains the spinal cord and brain) do not regenerate. Therefore, the spinal cord can’t repair itself. A spinal cord injury varies a lot in terms of location and severity.

Spinal cord treatments were quite limited over 20 years ago. All that doctors could do was stabilize the spinal cord to prevent further injuries, treat infections, and prescribe rehabilitative therapy to maintain any remaining capabilities. 

A 1990 human trial across several research centers discovered that a steroid called methylprednisolone could preserve some motor and sensory function. However, it had to be administered at high doses within the first eight hours after injury. This was the first time that a medical intervention had been proven to reduce dysfunction caused by spinal cord trauma. 

These improvements were modest, but the success of this treatment led to a search for other therapies. Since then, many medical research experts have examined new ideas for the treatment of spinal cord injuries. 

Can a Person Walk Again After a Spinal Cord Injury?

Whether or not a person can walk again after a spinal cord injury is uncertain. There are two main types of spinal cord injuries: complete and incomplete.

A complete spinal cord injury occurs when a person loses all sensory and motor function below the level of the spinal cord injury. With an incomplete spinal cord injury, a person retains some function below the level of the injury.

The American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) established the ASIA Impairment Scale to describe the severity of spinal cord injuries. The system uses the letters A through E and is as follows:

  • ASIA A: complete spinal cord injury with no sensory or motor function.
  • ASIA B: incomplete sensory function with complete loss of motor function.
  • ASIA C: incomplete motor function with some movement, but fewer than half of the muscle groups can lift against gravity with a full range of motion.
  • ASIA D: incomplete motor function with more than half of the muscle groups able to lift against gravity.
  • ASIA E: normal.

The chances of being able to walk after a spinal cord injury are improved with early rehabilitative therapy. These include occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling, and psychotherapy. 

How Long is Rehab After a Spinal Cord Injury?

The answer is that it varies depending on the severity of the spinal cord injury. The more extensive the injury, the longer the time that is needed for rehabilitation. 

How Do I Find a Rehabilitation Program for a Spinal Cord Injury?

At Moving With Hope, we manage the rehabilitation of many patients with spinal cord injuries and other types of injuries. You won’t have to wonder: “What is the difference between an occupational therapist and a physical therapist?” That’s because our team has your rehabilitation needs covered! So contact us today to begin the journey to your recovery.

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