Explaining the Differences Between Physical and Occupational Therapy

Apr 27, 2016

Explaining the Differences Between Physical and Occupational Therapy

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When we hear the terms occupational therapy and physical therapy thrown around it’s often hard to decipher the difference between the two. We can gather that they both involve some sort of therapy, but other than that what else do we know? When injuries occur at a moments notice and therapy is in the foreseeable future, it’s important to understand what type of therapy you need in order to get back to your best self.

The Difference Between Physical and Occupational Therapy 

First and foremost, let's define each term. Physical Therapy (PT) refers to treating a patient’s actual impairment while Occupation Therapy (OT) refers to treating the impairment in action. The focus of PT is to increase your mobility, aligning your joints and lessening pain. One of the major benefits of PT is to help individuals move more freely without pain. OT helps patients to go about their daily lives and complete everyday tasks with that impairment. A major benefit of occupational therapy is the mastery of skills that help individuals develop, recover and maintain daily living skills.

For example, let’s say you’ve just had surgery on your knee after an ACL tear. Your physical therapist, a licensed medical professional will assist you in exercises to decrease swelling and increase your mobility post surgery. Your physical therapist suggests using a wheelchair. Your occupational therapist will help you navigate the wheelchair while you rehab you knee back to 100%. Everyday tasks such as bathing, dressing, and using the bathroom while using the wheelchair will be tasks your occupational therapist will help you with.

Reasons to See a Physical Therapist Include:

  • Athletic injury
  • Injury rehab (post surgery)
  • Lingering pain
  • Swelling

It is best to see a physical therapist right away rather than waiting. This way, you will take care of the issue before it gets too out of hand. When exerting physical activity, it is important to listen to your body and what it is telling you. If you are having reoccurring pain or realize that pain medication is not helping, it may be a good idea to seek medical attention and see a physical therapist.

During a PT evaluation, the therapist will look at the patient/client history, conduct a systems review, and perform tests to identify potential and existing problems. After the initial evaluation, the therapist will then take that data to determine what problems can be addressed within their practice. The physical therapist will provide interventions, conduct re-examinations, modify interventions when necessary, and finally develop and implement discharge plans. There are many factors that will determine how many times a week an individual will need physical therapy such the degree of the injury/illness, age, insurance coverage etc.

Occupational therapy professionals want to help individuals with what matters to them. Going from never using a wheelchair a day in your life to using one every day will be a huge adjustment to anyone. Occupational therapists are there to help you continue doing what you are passionate about while adjusting to this part of your life.

Reasons to See an Occupational Therapist Include:

Help with Functional Activities

  • Routine dressing and dressing
  • Moving on and off furniture (bed, chair, restroom)
  • Meal assessments 
  • Preparing food/drink in the kitchen

Assistance with Therapeutic Activities

  • Strength
  • Cognition
  • Movement
  • Sensation
  • Motor Skills
  • Coordination

While physical therapy and occupational therapy vary in many aspects, there is a great deal of overlap between the two. These fields can work closely together in hospitals, outpatient clinics, schools, and nursing home facilities. The physical therapist and occupational therapist will collaborate with one another to maximize function of the patient while maintaining independence.

Physical therapy and Occupational therapy both play an important role in our health care system today and have helped many people lead healthier and more pain-free lives. Let’s take a look below at some of the specific differences between the two fields as cited by allalliedhealthschools.com:

Physical Therapy Professionals

  • Diagnose physical problems restricting movement because of illness or injury
  • Use exercises and other techniques to ease pain and boost mobility and muscle strength
  • Develop fitness and wellness programs aimed at preventing injuries and encouraging a more active lifestyle 

Occupational Therapy Professionals

  • Help patients with daily living skills and self-care tasks such as getting dressed
  • Support patients with memory loss or other cognitive issues
  • Make recommendations about adaptive equipment

Depending on your condition and specific needs, one therapy may prevail over another. That being said, it's possible that a combination of different therapeutic techniques will be used to make sure your rehabilitation is the best it can be. 

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