Okay, people. Here’s the deal: despite the commonly held misconception that OT and PT are synonymous, no, occupational therapy and physical therapy are NOT the same thing, and they are NOT quite equals in terms of therapeutic practices.
I know, I know–I’m starting this article off pretty boldly here, but I can’t tell you how many times those of us in the field of occupational therapy have had this exact conversation:
“So, you’re an occupational therapist…Is that like a physical therapist?”
“Not at all, actually.”
In an effort to eventually eradicate this same conversation from repeatedly occurring in the lives of every single OT out there, let’s take a look at the one main difference between the fields of occupational therapy and physical therapy.
One Big Difference
While it is true that both OT and PT are therapeutic practices focused on helping individuals to perform everyday tasks with as much independence as possible, there is one main difference between the two rehabilitative professions.
Physical therapists aim to rehabilitate the individual’s functioning through basic bodily movements, while occupational therapists focus on rehabilitating the individual to independently perform activities of daily living (ADLs), or occupations.
In other words, PT focuses on the movement of the body while OT focuses on the individual’s ability to engage in their life through everyday activities that are meaningful to them such as eating, dressing, playing, writing, dancing, or really anything else that occupies their time.
In physical therapy, the practitioner will focus on treating the individual from a purely biomechanical perspective. This means that the PT will treat the person’s ability to move their body properly by working on bodily alignment, strength, and pain management to improve the patient’s mobility. They mostly focus on treating injuries, post-surgical strength training, and physical recovery.
Physical therapists use various exercises, gym equipment, and massage techniques in order to achieve these therapeutic goals.
In occupational therapy, however, the therapist will focus on treating the individual from more of a holistic perspective, meaning they will treat the person more as a whole by working towards goals that the patient actually sets for themself.
Occupational therapists see a variety of different patients in a variety of different settings. A school-based occupational therapist might help a child meet their handwriting goals in order to help them perform well in school, while an acute care occupational therapist might assist the patient in performing self-care practices as independently as possible, or evaluate the patient’s need for splints or other tools to improve the quality of their daily life after a major injury or surgery.
OTs use various tools, equipment, activities, and exercises in order to achieve their therapeutic goals, all while listening to the personal needs and desires of the patient, since the whole goal is to help the client to engage in their own life, in whatever ways they find meaningful, as independently as possible.
OT and PT Work Together
While it is true that the focuses and rehabilitative processes of occupational therapy and physical therapy are very different from one another, it is important to recognize that one is not necessarily better than the other. OT and PT work well together to treat the patient so that they can live their lives to the fullest.
Both occupational therapists and physical therapists are trained to treat and help people avoid injuries, both improve daily functioning, and both play an important role in the overall healing process.
Yet, the biggest difference between the two professions lies in their overall focus and therapeutic processes.
So while a physical therapist may help you stand up and walk, an occupational therapist will help you integrate and use those skills to go to work, take care of your family, and perform all of the necessary tasks that add up to create a meaningful, whole, happy life.
Considering a career in occupational therapy? Check out this article for a closer look at what it takes to become an occupational therapist.