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Occupational vs. Physical Therapy

Physical therapy and occupational therapy are both therapies that help people perform the activities they do every day. But the approaches physical therapists take are quite different from the approaches occupational therapists take. The most notable difference between physical therapists (PTs) and occupational therapists (OTs) is their focus: PTs focus on healing and strengthening their clients’ bodies and getting them back to normal after an injury, and OTs focus on teaching their clients to adapt to their challenges so they can more easily and efficiently perform the activities of daily living (ADL). 

Both PTs and OTs can do hands-on work and help with the process of rehabilitation. PTs usually work with people who have sustained an injury and are trying to get back to their normal lives, while OTs usually spend their time with clients who are struggling with motor skills or behaviors due to developmental delays or disorders, health conditions, or injuries. One of the main goals of physical therapy is to reduce pain and inflammation which may in turn reduce the client’s need for pain relieving medication. While one of the main goals of occupational therapy is to teach clients how to adapt. These adaptive techniques may reduce pain, but that’s not usually the main goal.

Both PTs and OTs work with clients to prevent injury, but they go about it in different ways. For example, a PT might do hands-on therapy and teach clients how to do strengthening exercises that will help them avoid future injury; while an OT might teach clients how to rearrange furniture or use assistive devices to help prevent injury. 

Both types of therapists see clients in their offices, but OTs often see clients outside of an office setting. When OTs go to clients’ homes, workplaces, or out in the community, they can better understand clients’ challenges and how OT can help them. OT tends to be more practical than PT.

Here are some sample services PTs and OTs perform:

Physical therapists may:

  • Do a physical evaluation of an injury or condition to better understand how the injury/condition is restricting every day activities
  • Develop a treatment plan that involves things like exercise, ice or heat, elevation, and compression
  • Do exercises and show the client how to do exercises that may reduce pain, increase strength, and improve mobility
  • Develop a program to help improve overall fitness, which can help with injury prevention
  • Offer hands-on therapy, such as therapeutic massage, myofascial release, and trigger point therapy
  • Use hands-off therapy options, such as electric stimulation (like a TENs unit), ice or heat therapy, or a traction table

Occupational therapists may:

  • Evaluate client needs by meeting with them in their homes, offices, schools, or communities
  • Recommend assistive devices that can make it easier to do necessary ADL and teach clients how to use the devices
  • Help clients learn to dress, shower, use the toilet, shave, and do other personal care activities in a manner that’s safe and less likely to lead to injury
  • Work with clients to organize their drawers and cabinets so the items they need and use frequently are easiest to access
  • Work with clients to tackle cognitive problems, memory loss, and behavioral problems they may have
  • Offer advice for environmental modification
  • Work with schools or employers regarding reasonable accommodations

More about occupational therapists

Occupational therapists are more comprehensive in their treatments. Rather than just treating an injury, they work with each client in order to understand how a condition or injury is affecting the client’s entire life. Then they help them figure out how to best function and perform the ADLs. OTs look at how a client lives within every environment and helps them adapt to each of those environments. They help with overall health, rehabilitation, and habilitation.

If you see an OT, he or she will ask about your goals and will evaluate your strengths and limitations in order to make recommendations for meeting those goals. 

More about physical therapists

Physical therapists tend to focus on a specific injury or condition and how it physically impedes clients from taking part in the activities they want to participate in. Then they develop a treatment plan to help strengthen the physical body, increase range of motion and mobility, reduce pain, healing or aligning bones and joints, reducing swelling and inflammation, and more. They usually do this through exercises, hands-on therapy, and other targeted therapies. 

If you see a PT, your first appointment will likely involve a physical exam and evaluation and a medical history that focuses on your current injury or condition. Then the PT will come up with an exercise and therapy routine aimed at reaching your goal without injuring yourself.

How PT and OT can work together and overlap

If you have an injury or condition, you may see both an occupational therapist and a physical therapist. These two healthcare professionals often offer complementary services that work well in conjunction with one another. 

For example, you might start out with a physical therapist who will help address your acute problem. Then, once you’re stable, you may start seeing an occupational therapist who can help you adapt to your environment. Here’s an example. Let’s say a young man lost some lower extremity motor function due to a spinal cord injury. After his initial medical care to treat the acute spinal cord injury, he met with a physical therapist who worked with him to strengthen his legs so he would be able to learn to walk again. Both a physical therapist and an occupational therapist could help him learn to walk. But the occupational therapist would work on teaching him how to adapt to being in a wheelchair or to using braces or crutches to get around. An occupational therapist could also help him set up his house so he could more easily maneuver from room to room and could help him put his pants and shoes on now that he doesn’t have full function in his legs.

Here are some examples of how PT and OT services overlap. Both PTs and OTs:

  • Offer education about injury prevention
  • Support their clients through challenges, like healing or learning (or re-learning) skills
  • Help clients perform ADLs
  • May offer functional training

When to see a PT versus an OT (and vice versa)

Your doctor will help you decide whether you need physical or occupational therapy (or both). The decision will largely depend on what your challenges are. For example, if you are an athlete who tore a tendon in your ankle and you want to get back to your sport as soon as possible, you’re most likely going to see a physical therapist. But if you have problems grabbing onto objects due to numbness or weakness in your arms or hands, you may be better off seeing an occupational therapist. If you’ve had complex hip replacement surgery, you may need to see a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. An occupational therapist could visit your home right after surgery to help you prepare your house for your recovery. The OT would also help you figure out how to arrange your furniture in a way that would keep a path clear throughout the house or give you something to hold as you walk through the house. In this example, an OT could also recommend assistive devices, like bathtub or shower bars or toilet seat extenders to help you manage personal care activities. Then, once your body has healed enough, you could start physical therapy to help you both regain any strength you lost after your surgery and to help you learn how to live well with your new hip joint. A PT might also give you exercises to keep you more stable on your feet to help you prevent future falls or injuries. 

Generally speaking, if you have a specific physical condition related to your musculoskeletal system and you need help with recovery, you’ll probably see a physical therapist. And if you have a physical challenge due to an injury or condition that is limiting what you can do in your everyday life that may last for a significant amount of time, you may benefit from seeing an occupational therapist. There are many situations in which you might want to see both. When in doubt, talk to your doctor. He or she understands your unique situation and how complementary therapies can help you be at your best.

Physical and occupational therapy at Beaumont

If you have a musculoskeletal condition and would like to see a physical or occupational therapist, call Beaumont at 248-655-3191 today to make an appointment. We offer physical and occupational therapy, functional training, sports and orthopedic rehabilitation, oncology rehabilitation, and more.