The difference between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy

occupational therapy vs physical therapy

Occupational therapy and physical therapy share the common aim of improving a person’s functional ability and quality of life. While there is much crossover between the two therapies, there are significant differences. Both are uniquely specialized in their areas of expertise. Occupational therapy deals with fine motor skills, visual-perception skills, cognitive skills and sensory-processing skills. Physical therapy deals with gross motor function, joint range of motion, strength, endurance and pain.

What is occupational therapy?

occupational therapist and patient

Occupational therapy aims to increase independence by enabling the individual to perform meaningful and purposeful tasks. Many of us may take for granted the ability to perform daily activities such as bathing, dressing, housekeeping, cooking and eating. While many of us perform these tasks without a second thought, some people have limited ability due to physical or mental impairment.

Who do occupational therapists treat?

Occupational therapists help people recover from acute events such as injury, surgery or stroke as well as helping people live with chronic conditions like arthritis and multiple sclerosis and mental health conditions such as depression and schizophrenia. Their intervention spans a lifetime, from conditions that are present from childhood (cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down syndrome, learning difficulties, dyspraxia) to those that appear as a result of age related decline in cognitive or physical function.

How does occupational therapy make a difference?

Occupational therapy helps restore function. As well as the individual’s ability to perform tasks in their home or work environment. Assistive equipment may be used to make the environment suitable for their needs. Adaptations may include a ramp for wheelchair accessibility, stair-lift, grab rails, raised toilet seat or shower seat. Occupational therapists also address psychosocial problems by helping build life skills and social skills. By improving self-care and life skills, they enable the person to live a fuller life.

What is physical therapy?

physical therapist working the shoulder of a rehab patient

Physical therapy focuses more specifically on restoring movement and mobility. Physical therapists use their knowledge of the musculoskeletal system to improve function and prevent negative outcomes such as pain and stiffness.

Who do physical therapists treat?

Physical therapists treat many of the same conditions as occupational therapists. They may focus on a specific part of the body that has undergone trauma, such as a fracture or torn ligament, or more holistically on overall mobility, such as in stroke or reduced mobility after illness or surgery. They treat acute injuries and chronic health problems.

Physical therapy has a number of sub-specialties:

How does physical therapy make a difference?

Physical therapists use various methods to regain strength and range of motion, reduce pain and restore mobility. Effective techniques include massage, traction, stretching, strength training, endurance exercises, exercises for balance, hot and cold packs, ultrasound, electrical muscle stimulation, joint mobilization and aquatics.

Chest physiotherapy uses techniques including deep breathing, chest percussion and vibration to promote the clearance of chest secretions. This improves symptoms for those suffering with lung disease such as chronic bronchitis and cystic fibrosis.

Women’s health therapy uses pelvic floor exercises to strengthen pelvic muscles and prevent urinary incontinence after childbirth.

Physical therapists develop individualized plans and teach the individual specific exercises to practice at home.

Summing Up the Difference

physical therapist working with a rehab patient

Physical therapists treat the actual impairment, whereas occupational therapists treat the impairment in action. To illustrate this, let’s take an example. Consider a person who has limb weakness after suffering a stroke.

The physical therapist works on improving their mobility by using techniques to strengthen the muscle and improve range of motion. The occupational therapist works on improving their ability to perform tasks such as eating and dressing, and may use adaptive tools to help them to be as independent as possible.

Both work closely to improve the outcome for the patient, while each plays a unique role. From recovery and rehabilitation, to learning to live with a chronic condition, both therapies ultimately play a major role in improving lives.

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