Occupational therapist helping patient to improve balance and movement at MCPHS
University News

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy

Occupational therapist helping patient to improve balance and movement at MCPHS

Occupational therapists and physical therapists both provide rehabilitative services. Explore the distinctly different purposes for the care they provide.

What is the difference between physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT)? The two programs both fall within the rehabilitative sciences and share many similarities, however, there are distinct differences in the approach each takes with a patient's rehabilitative care.

The Basic Difference

The most basic difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy is that a PT focuses on improving the patient's ability to move their body whereas an OT focuses on improving the patient's ability to perform activities of daily living. Additionally, PT’s foundation was in physical rehabilitation whereas OT was founded in mental healthcare and physical rehabilitation.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists focus on adapting, modifying, or changing daily activities that a person is required or wants to do. OTs might do this by altering the activity, altering the environment, or altering the skills of the person. At the person skill level, an OT might help patients improve their fine motor skills. Fine motor skills are typically small movements made with your upper body. They are essential for many daily activities such as picking up a toothbrush and brushing your teeth, cutting your food with a fork and knife, getting dressed, using a smartphone, or driving. For patients with mental health challenges, an OT might improve skills by increasing the use of positive coping strategies that allow the patient to work or be successful in school.

OTs are problem solvers who enjoy helping people better their lives by regaining independence after an injury or by helping children and adults with intellectual or developmental delays adapt to daily life. From neonatal care all the way throughout the lifespan, OTs are compassionate clinicians who consider the whole person and develop therapies taking into account physical, emotional, and environmental factors that affect participation and performance in meaningful activities.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapists are movement experts who optimize quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education. They are also problem solvers who are passionate about getting their patients back on their feet. PTs focus on restoring the ability to move, reducing pain, and improving gross motor skills while promoting function and independence, and preventing disability. Gross motor skills are typically developed in childhood and are used in the movement and coordination of the arms, legs, and other large body parts.

PTs often work with patients who may be recovering from an injury that has impacted these skills. The focus is not only on rehabilitation but also on the prevention of further injury. Functional and pain-free movement is essential to one's quality of life. Physical therapists also create and develop treatment plans to improve mobility to help their patients avoid surgery or prescription pain medications. PTs also understand the emotional aspects of recovering from an injury and are often their patient's biggest cheerleaders.

Career Options

PTs and OTs can be found in any number of settings including hospitals, private practice, early intervention, and long-term care facilities, working with patients across the lifespan from infants and children to adults and the elderly. PTs and OTs aren't confined to typical healthcare settings as therapists also work in schools, in fitness or wellness facilities, sports settings, and even travel to patients' homes.

The career opportunities will continue to grow as the population is living longer, more active lives. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the potential job growth for physical therapy is 28 percent and 24 percent for occupational therapy by 2026—much faster than the average for all occupations. 

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