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The Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy

As you embark on your rehabilitation journey, several terms may be confusing to you. Two terms that are often confused or misunderstood are Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy. What is the difference between the two, if any?

What is Physical Therapy?
Physical therapy is a health profession that aims to rectify impairments and functional limitations caused by a person’s impairments. Physical therapy also strives to maximize a person’s mobility, functional ability, wellness, and quality of life. A physical therapist is a medical professional who is licensed to assess and treat impairments, functional limitations, and disabilities in patients. They often work closely with Physical Therapist Assistants, who are licensed to perform PT treatments. Physical therapists can also specialize in particular branches of Physical Therapy such as orthopedics, pediatrics, wound care, cardiac rehabilitation, lymphedema, and women’s health.

Physical Therapy treatments often include manual therapy techniques to improve the alignment and mobility of a patient’s bones and soft tissues in order to decrease pain and increase function. Physical Therapy also incorporates stretching, therapeutic exercise, balance training, functional mobility training, gait training, and caregiver training. Physical Therapists are also qualified to recommend appropriate medical and assistive devices for patients including shower chairs, braces, walkers, canes, wheelchairs, and standers. Patient education regarding a patient’s condition, injury prevention, proper body mechanics, appropriate recreational activities, and general health is a vital part of Physical Therapy. To ensure continued progress, a physical therapist will often prescribe an individualized home exercise program.

In order to maintain an active lifestyle, a physical therapist can help you move in an efficient, less painful manner. With the guidance of a physical therapist, you can assume or continue a fitness program that would be most beneficial for you, whether it be walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, golfing, etc.

What is Occupational Therapy?
Occupational Therapy is another health profession that aims to remediate impairments and functional limitations in order to maximize a person’s ability to perform activities of daily living. Activities of daily living include dressing, cooking, bathing, toileting, writing, and other common household and work-related tasks.

Occupational Therapy treatments will frequently include manual therapy techniques, stretching, therapeutic exercise, hand strengthening, activities to improve manual dexterity, and caregiver training. Occupational Therapists may also recommend appropriate adaptive equipment such as reachers, dressing aids, specialized dishes and utensils, and splints for positioning. Patient education regarding a patient’s condition, accommodations, and proper use of adaptive equipment is an important aspect of Occupational Therapy. An occupational therapist will also create an individualized home exercise program to encourage a patient’s continued progress.

An occupational therapist can help you continue to perform hobbies and recreational activities that you find enjoyable. With the guidance of an occupational therapy, you may be able to perform activities that you may have had difficulty doing such as knitting, cooking, gardening, or playing cards.

How do Physical and Occupational Therapy Complement Each Other?
Both Physical and Occupational Therapists work in hospitals, private clinics, schools, skilled nursing facilities, and adult day care centers. They compose part of a multidisciplinary team that usually consists of doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, dieticians, etc. Physical and occupational therapists will often lead community-based exercise and educational programs such as balance classes, fall prevention classes, and aquatic exercise classes.

Traditionally, when working with the same patient, a Physical Therapist will focus on activities involving the lower extremity while the Occupational Therapist will focus on activities involving the upper extremity. However, when they are able to overlap treatments with a patient, they will often collaborate to maximize the effectiveness of a session. For example, the physical therapist may help the patient stand from a wheelchair and maintain standing balance while the occupational therapist assists the patient in hygiene tasks at the sink. At an outpatient clinic, they can work together to help a person resume gardening – the physical therapist would help with walking outdoors on uneven surfaces, using proper body mechanics while lifting and carrying gardening supplies, and practicing squatting; while the occupational therapist would assist with opening packages, using a trowel, and turning on the faucet.

Together, physical and occupational therapists can help people maximize their function, maintain independence, and continue to lead active lives for as long as possible. If you are having difficulty living the lifestyle you desire, ask your physician if Physical Therapy or Occupational Therapy would be beneficial for you.

If you have any questions regarding any of our services, please email us at clifton@holsmanhealthcare.com or call us directly at 973-246-6565.