Occupational Therapy Versus Physical Therapy: What Is the Difference?

physical therapist helping a patient stretch during a session

If you want to help people recover after an injury, you can pursue a career as an occupational therapist or a physical therapist. While these two forms of therapy overlap, they are distinct from each other. Knowing the differences between occupational and physical therapy can help you discover what field to enter as well as what degree to earn for career success.

What Is Occupational Therapy?

An occupational therapist treats people with physical issues that may stem from injury or developmental or cognitive disabilities with advanced knowledge of anatomy. These issues may affect motor skills, behaviors or emotions.

The purpose of occupational therapy is to help people engage in life fully. An occupational therapist focuses on how to get people using their bodies effectively in their daily lives.

Occupational therapy takes a holistic approach. The occupational therapist is concerned not only with impairments to physical mobility but with how those changes in physical mobility affect the client's life, work and environment. An occupational therapist ensures that the whole person feels well. This includes developing skills and adaptations to maintain skills and adaptations to maintain all-around health and wellness.

If you break your arm, you may no longer be able to play in your softball league. Your occupational therapist will help you determine new ways to fulfill the need that softball had satisfied in your life. For example, you might have been part of the league to spend time with friends or to get more exercise. The occupational therapist (OT) will help you not only with your arm but also in finding new habits that fulfill your needs without requiring you to use your arm until you heal. The OT might suggest that you join a book club with your friends or take up walking in the meantime.

What Is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy focuses on the patient’s specific physical impairment. The physical therapist looks at the biomechanical aspects of an injury and tries to restore the impaired function by working on mobility. Physical therapists also ensure that joints and bones are aligned and focuses on the biomechanics of movement known as Kinesiology. Physical therapists (PT) help the patient to learn exercises and movements that can decrease pain and improve motion.

Physical therapists want to get their patients moving as naturally as possible. They may use targeted exercises, stretches and massages to improve mobility. Other techniques, such as dry needling, may also be part of a physical therapy regimen.

Physical therapy focuses on helping people prevent further injury, especially when their biomechanics are permanently affected. This type of therapy aims to help people avoid surgery and stay off medications as long as possible. This means that when you have a particular injury, the physical therapist will create a specific treatment program to help restore function in the affected area. They will also seek to speed up recovery with at-home exercises in addition to any necessary office visits.

Where Occupational and Physical Therapy Overlap

It can be easy to see where the OT and PT overlap. While there are many differences, these two areas do have a lot in common. For instance, both occupational therapists and physical therapists help educate people on preventing and avoiding injuries in the future. Both therapies also focus on the healing process.

Occupational therapy and physical therapy are also both fields that attract professionals who want to help others. In physical therapy, help comes in the form of improved movement and reduced pain. In occupational therapy, help comes in the form of enhanced ability to perform daily activities now and in the future.

Some people may work with both a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. For example, someone who has had a stroke may start with physical therapy to build up the muscle strength to walk or hold things again. Later, an occupational therapist may help overcome obstacles to performing daily activities such as bathing, eating or walking without assistance.

How to Choose a Therapy Degree

Choosing the right therapy degree program is a personal decision. Consider what is most important to you and what aspect of helping people recover is most interesting to you. If you are interested in the biomechanical side of recovery, then physical therapy may be the right therapy degree for you to pursue. If you take a more holistic approach to recovery and want to help people get back to their daily activities and rebuild satisfying lives, then occupational therapy may be the best choice for you.

No matter what therapy degree program you choose to pursue, get your start at Grand Canyon University by earning your Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences degree. Or, if you are leaning toward physical therapy, you can also earn your Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science with an Emphasis in Pre-Physical Therapy.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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