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What is the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy?


If you have undergone any type of rehabilitation for an injury, chances are you have encountered a physical therapist or occupational therapist- or a collective of the two.  Physical and occupational therapists work side by side in many settings and are often confused for one another. Despite several crossovers with these two therapies, they each have important and specific qualities that are there to improve the patient’s overall quality of life. The difference lies in the way that each discipline approaches the patient’s problem. One way to understand the difference between the two is by thinking about each discipline with the same injury. For example, a patient hurts their neck in a work injury that results in neck pain and symptoms in the arm. The patient would most likely benefit from seeing a physical therapist for the neck injury to address the pain, range of motion, muscle weakness, and posture. An occupational therapist would treat the patient for difficulty with the use of the arm or hand during activities of daily living, including signing your name, work-related tasks, dressing, and bathing.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy involves treating the patient’s deficits that impair them from performing mobility that is required in their daily lives. Their primary focus is on the movement of the human body needed for the patient to live as functionally independent as possible.  For instance, a patient attending physical therapy for a knee injury will most likely not be able to complete the same daily tasks, such as climbing stairs, that they were performing prior to the injury. The emphasis of physical therapy is to assist in the healing process and educate patients on posture, body mechanics, and other prevention strategies, while treat deficits including muscle weakness, decreased muscle activation, impaired balance, and proprioception, and decreased joint mobility in order to provide interventions for the patient to return to prior functionality.

Occupational Therapy

The term occupational in this capacity includes job-related activities, recreational activities, activities of daily living, and social interaction.

Occupational therapy addresses these areas that may be affected by an injury, such as repetitive strain injuries, one of the leading causes of worker’s compensation claims in the United Stets. With a focus on education, an occupational therapist will provide effective strategies to improve their ability to perform their day-to-day activities through improving strength, endurance, motion and practicing the task. If necessary, they will train patients on learning new tasks, such as learning a new way to put on a shirt if their limitations no longer allow them to dress as they once did.

Similarities in Physical and Occupational Therapies

Though the areas of focus for physical and occupational therapists are different, they both play critical roles in rehabilitating patients. Both therapies address deficits and limitations with therapeutic exercises and activities to improve strength, endurance, muscle activation, balance and proprioception, and more. Educating patients and caregivers through hands-on training is essential for both Occupational and Physical therapists. They’re able to provide training on ergonomics and body mechanics, home exercise programs, and knowledge of re-injury prevention. Regardless of which kind of therapy a patient may need, they can count on these professionals to improve their quality of life. If you are a looking for an occupation therapist, physical therapist, or an experienced injury doctor, call 1-800-897-8440