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  • Writer's pictureMiracle Rehab Clinic

Physical Therapy vs. Occupational Therapy: Key Differences

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

We often receive questions from patients about the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy, as it can get confusing for many.

Both of these rehabilitative disciplines have the same goal - to help patients manage or eliminate pain caused by various factors such as illness, accidents, post-surgery recovery, etc.

They both often use similar modalities; however, even with all the similarities, there are still plenty of differences and individual characteristics setting these disciplines apart, starting from specific techniques to the scope of treatment.

If you need help and are looking for a professional, it's essential to understand these differences to get the best outcomes.

Let's talk about physical vs. occupational therapy.

Physical Therapy (PT) Definition

In short, physical therapy and physical therapists focus on treating pain, increasing the range of motion, and addressing muscle weaknesses that have occurred due to illness or injuries.

The end goals of physical therapy are to manage the symptoms of various conditions, speed up recovery, increase strength, endurance, and reduce pain.

By achieving those goals, the patients' quality of life increases, and they are enabled to either go back to living their normal everyday lives or as close to that as possible.

The treated conditions include fractured bones, sprained joints, torn rotator cuff, sports injuries, female health issues, generalized neck and back pain, etc.

Physical therapy is also often effective in preventing the condition from getting worse and helping the patients to maintain overall fitness and lifestyle.

Physical therapy can also be used for:

  • Joint conditions (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.)

  • Neurological conditions (multiple sclerosis, Parkinson'sParkinson's disease, rehabilitation after stroke)

  • Heart conditions (e.g., recovery after a heart attack).

  • Various other illnesses, conditions

  • Recovery after surgery

Physical therapy uses different techniques to treat patients, and each patient gets an individual treatment plan based on their needs, condition, etc.

PT techniques include:

  • Physical exercises

  • Stretching

  • Hands-on manipulation (manual therapy)

  • Hot and cold modalities

  • Massage

  • Ultrasound

  • Electrical stimulation

  • Other

Occupational Therapy (OT) Definition

Occupational therapy (OT) treats patients with various conditions and illnesses that include physical, mental, and emotional issues. All of these issues keep people from performing their daily tasks and living the best lives they can.

Occupational therapy treats birth injuries, mental or behavioral problems, traumatic injuries to the brain and spinal cord, sensory disorders, etc.

Occupational therapy is key to empowering and enabling people to live independently, perform daily tasks, and increase their quality of life.

The OT goals include helping people develop motor skills needed to, e.g., use tools, utensils, or a pen, improve hand-to-eye coordination, learn basic tasks like getting dressed or bathing.

What makes OT different in the PT vs OT comparison is that it helps people with mental problems regulate and manage emotions in order to live more wholesome lives.

The main goals of occupational therapy are to give the patients more independence, help them with daily tasks, and help caregivers understand them better too.

Occupational therapy can also be used for:

  • Rehabilitation from injury or surgery

  • Pain management

  • Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other joint conditions

  • Autism, learning disorders, and other developmental conditions

  • Cerebral palsy, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological conditions

  • Depression, anxiety, dementia, Alzheimer'sAlzheimer's disease

  • Other

OT techniques include:

  • Teaching the patients techniques and exercises to increase flexibility, range of motion and manage pain

  • Helping patients learn how to do daily tasks, e.g., showering, getting dressed, getting out of bed, etc.

  • Helping assess and adapt the home or workplace to make everyday life easier

  • Teaching patients to use walkers, crutches, wheelchairs

  • Helping patients develop or fine motor skills

  • Teaching patients techniques and strategies to manage stress and anxiety

  • Educating caregivers and family to help the patient every day

Occupational Therapy For Kids

Occupation therapy is also commonly used for kids to help them improve fine motor skills and perform their daily tasks such as brushing teeth, getting dressed, eating, drawing, writing, etc.

Because these tasks are often challenging due to physical and behavioral disabilities, the OT specialist addresses both by working on the child's visual, cognitive, and coordination skills.

OT can be invaluable in helping the child learn, play, grow and live a full life.

PT vs. OT: Key Differences

While there is overlap, the main difference between physical vs. occupational therapy is that physical therapists generally focus and work on making people move better, and OT takes a broader, holistic approach.

Besides the physical aspect, OT also involves teaching and helping people deal with social, emotional, and work-related situations, while PT generally sticks to the physical side only.

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy Differences

When talking about the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy, these are some of the most critical points.

  • Occupational therapists focus on fine motor skills, which are the movements of the body's small muscles. A PT focuses more on gross motor skills, which use the body's large muscles.

  • A PT generally helps improve the patient's movement and treats a specific area. An occupational therapist helps improve the patient's daily life quality and helps perform functional tasks.

  • A physical therapist's techniques include exercises, stretches, or other physical activities to help strengthen the injured part of the body, increase the range of motion and help manage pain and discomfort. An occupational therapist will take a step further, and for those who need it will help make their home more optimal for everyday life and help relearn various daily tasks like eating, dressing up, or showering.

  • Another difference between OT and PT is that physical therapy treatment usually ends after the goals are achieved. In contrast, occupational therapy can be a part of a patient's life for a much longer period of time.

Similarities Between PT and OT

And while there are differences, there are also similarities between these two disciplines.

Physical and occupational therapy both help people living with a disability or suffering from an injury. Their end goal is to help the patient either get back on their feet or make tasks more manageable.

Some other similarities include:

Purpose and end goals. Both PT and OT have the end goal to help patients and improve their quality of life, health, and wellbeing. They also focus on helping the person heal, make progress, improve physical function.

Health conditions and illnesses they address. Both therapies can be used to help many of the same conditions, illnesses, injuries, and problems.

Individual approach. Neither PT nor OT has cookie-cutter solutions. They're both tailored to each patient's needs, and the treatment plans are constantly reassessed to ensure the best progress.

Both involve treatment and education. For both OT and PT, the goals are achieved using various therapies and techniques and by delivering training and education for patients to use individually at home themselves.

Both can be complementary. Often both therapies can be used at the same time or complementary to each other to achieve the best results. A physical therapist can address physical recovery, and OT can help the patient adjust to the new lifestyle, but it's not exclusive to just that.

What to Choose As a Patient: Physical Therapy or Occupational Therapy?

So how do you choose the best therapy for you? Well, that mostly depends on your needs, condition, and healing goals.

If you have a physical condition that negatively affects or restricts your movement, causes you pain, and by extension, makes your everyday functioning challenging, you might consider a physical therapist to address that specific issue.

They will create a plan and focus on the particular body part (e.g., your back or knee) and work to help improve mobility, strength, reduce pain and increase balance. A physical therapist can also be invaluable to help you recover from surgery (e.g., hip replacement surgery).

If your problems include not only the physical side of things, but you also need help performing daily tasks, such as getting dressed or bathing, an occupational therapist can help you develop the motor skills required for these specific tasks.

Francesco Ruggeri / Getty Images

An OT will also be your best choice if you also suffer from emotional or mental problems or need help adapting your home to be more suitable to live in with your condition.

In many cases, both adults and children can highly benefit from both PT and OT and a comprehensive treatment approach. Various issues can be addressed and assessed from different perspectives and contexts, which can lead to a faster recovery and improvement.

Either way, you should consult with your doctor and talk to both a PT and OT to understand which option is best for you fully. You can also try both these disciplines and see what works better for you long-term.

Final Thoughts

Both physical therapy and occupational therapy have similar goals of helping the patient improve their condition, reduce pain, increase range of movement, strength, and balance and improve their lives.

At the same time, they have significant differences. Physical therapy focuses more on the physical side of treatment and specific body parts, while occupational therapy focuses on helping patients perform daily tasks and takes a wider healing approach that addresses mental and emotional wellbeing.

Every patient can benefit from both therapies, but it's best to talk to your doctor to understand what works best for your particular condition and challenge. Book an appointment in our clinics in Warren or Farmington Hills.

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