What is the Difference Between an Occupational Therapist and a Physical Therapist? Exploring the Two Roles

What is the difference between an occupational therapist and a physical therapist? Let’s explore the similarities and differences between these two roles

Occupational therapy and physical therapy are two distinct types of rehabilitative care. The purpose of rehabilitative care is to improve or prevent the worsening of a client’s health condition or quality of life after an injury, surgery, or illness. What is the difference between an occupational therapist and a physical therapist? Let’s explore these two roles and their impact on clients’ health and wellbeing. 

Exploring the Roles of Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists

In this article, we will take a closer look at the roles of occupational therapists and physical therapists, the benefits they offer, and their similarities and differences.

The Differences

Physical therapy focuses on improving your ability to move, be mobile, and function well. A physical therapist uses a variety of exercises, stretches, and other physical activities to accomplish these goals. 

For example, if someone had a knee replacement surgery, they will likely visit a physical therapist for rehabilitative sessions.   

The physical therapist will work with the client to strengthen their knee and increase the range of motion in the knee joint. This will help them to move easier and with less pain and discomfort. 

However, occupational therapy focuses on helping you to perform daily tasks far easier. This type of therapy serves to improve your fine and gross motor skills so that you can perform specific daily activities. The occupational therapist will also help you to make your home, work (or school) environment conducive to your everyday life. 

For example, a stroke survivor may visit an occupational therapist to get help recovering and relearning how to do daily activities like dressing and eating with utensils. They may also need to make key areas of their homes safer and easier to navigate (like installing grab bars and assistive devices). 

The Similarities

Let’s explore the complementary roles of occupational therapists and physical therapists

Although there are differences between occupational therapy and physical therapy, there are commonalities as well:

  • Health Outcome: The roles of occupational therapists and physical therapists all focus on the same health outcome. And that is to improve your overall functioning, quality of life, and knowledge about how to maintain your health and wellbeing. 
  • Conditions Treated: Physical therapists and occupational therapists both work to resolve a common set of health conditions. It is often the case that a client first works with a physical therapist to build joint and muscle strength and agility and then with an occupational therapist to develop their motor skills to complete daily activities. 
  • Treatment Design: Both occupational therapists and physical therapists provide hands-on care that is customized to address each client’s needs. 
  • Treatment Overlap: You will find some similarities in the types of exercises done in both therapies. For example, a physical therapist may work with clients to help them do activities like getting into and out of a bathtub. Similarly, an occupational therapist may incorporate stretches and exercises in a client’s sessions. 
  • Goal Setting and Monitoring: Both occupational therapists and physical therapists set treatment goals and carefully monitor your progress to achieve them. 

We’ve explored the broad differences and similarities between occupational therapists and physical therapists. Now let’s explore each role in further detail. 

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

A physical therapist helps injured or ill people to improve their mobility and manage pain and discomfort. They also evaluate and record a client’s progress in regaining their best physical function. 

Physical therapy is an essential component of preventive care, rehabilitation, and treatment of people with chronic conditions, illnesses, or injuries.

Physical Therapy Goals 

The overall goals of physical therapy focus on:

  • Improving or restoring your movement, strength, and range of motion.
  • Decreasing any pain and discomfort you experience. 
  • Preventing your condition from getting worse.
  • Educating you about the ways to maintain your overall fitness and functionality.

When Do You Need Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is often recommended when a health issue affects your range of motion or ability to move. These cases include:

What Type of Physical Therapy Can You Expect?

A massage is one of many physical therapy techniques

Your physical therapy will be customized to suit your unique health requirements. The physical therapist will carefully review your medical history and existing condition to create a treatment plan and goals for your therapy. 

Physical therapists use several techniques such as:

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

An occupational therapist treats injured, ill, or disabled clients via the therapeutic use of daily activities. They help clients to develop, recover, improve, and maintain the skills they need for daily life. 

Occupational Therapy Goals

Occupational therapy focuses on:

  • Maximizing your ability to safely and effectively perform daily tasks.
  • Promoting your independence and productivity.
  • Educating your caregivers about how to support you as you undergo therapy.

When Do You Need Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy may be recommended if a condition or illness stops you from doing your daily activities. Examples of occupational therapy cases include:

What Type of Occupational Therapy Can You Expect?

An occupational therapist will review your medical history and assess your condition to determine your health requirements. Then they will create your customized therapy plan and treatment goals.

Occupational therapy may include:

  • Practice how to perform daily tasks like bathing, getting dressed, and eating.
  • Evaluate your home, school, or workplace, to see how they can be improved to help you complete your daily activities. 
  • Teach you how to use assistive devices such as wheelchairs and walkers. 
  • Train you about how to safely get into and out of your bed, chairs, or bathtub. 
  • Demonstrate exercises that you will perform to increase your flexibility and/or reduce your pain. 
  • Help you master tasks that require fine motor skills (like writing or buttoning your shirt). 
  • Assist you with programs to help you return to work. 
  • Share stress management strategies.
  • Educate your loved ones and caregivers on how to support you in your occupational therapy. 

Which Therapy Should You Choose?

We’ve explored the difference between an occupational therapist and a physical therapist. So which is better for you? The answer is that it depends on your health needs.

If your condition hinders your ability to walk or move a body part without pain, then you will need a physical therapist. They will help you to manage your pain, improve your mobility, strength, and range of motion using targeted exercises, stretches, and other methods. 

Do you have difficulties performing daily tasks like picking up objects or getting dressed? Then you would need an occupational therapist. They will help you improve the motor skills that you need for these specific tasks. 

However, your medical team will recommend the type of therapy that’s best for your health needs. They will advise you about the benefits of each therapy and which one is best for your specific needs. 

Therapy and Your Recovery

Therapy builds your resiliency and helps you regain some independence

Physical therapists and occupational therapists are critical to any recovery process. Let’s consider some important questions:

Can a Person Walk Again After an Acquired Brain Injury?

An acquired brain injury (ABI) is a condition that is not hereditary, congenital, degenerative or induced by birth trauma. An ABI occurs after birth and it generates a change in the brain’s neuronal activity. This, in turn, results in a loss of physical integrity, metabolic activity, or functional ability of the brain’s nerve cells. 

Your ability to walk after an ABI is affected by the type and extent of the damage and your outlook or perceptions. Research indicates that physical activity is critical for recovery, but such clients may find it hard to engage in and sustain intense physical activity. 

Furthermore, negative feelings and experiences can also hamper rehabilitation. These internal barriers include fear of falling or getting hurt, lack of motivation, and depression. There are also external barriers like uneven ground, bad weather, lack of company, as well as noisy and busy surroundings that can hinder the rehabilitation process. So you must have the right mindset and follow your treatment plan for the best health outcome. 

How Long is Rehab After an Acquired Brain Injury?

The most rapid recovery from an ABI occurs in the first 18 months to 2 years after the injury. However, recovery can be a life-long process. The time taken for rehabilitation depends on the type of injury, its severity, the age of the client who was impaired, as well as their support network. 

How Do I Find a Rehabilitation Program for an Acquired Brain Injury?

Moving With Hope provides the best rehabilitative sessions to many patients with ABI and other types of injuries. Plus, you won’t need to ask: “What is the difference between an occupational therapist and a physical therapist?” We will ensure that you receive therapy that is customized for your health needs and to drive your success. Our team of therapy professionals will be happy to collaborate with your existing doctors to design, execute, and monitor a custom treatment plan tailored for you. So contact us today to begin the journey to your recovery.

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