What is the difference between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist?

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Occupational therapists and physical therapists often address similar conditions using similar treatment methods and tools. Interestingly, at one time occupational therapists and physical therapists were both known as reconstruction aides. These 'reconstruction aides' worked to rehabilitate veterans in World War I and gave credibility to physical rehabilitation interventions. Today, both professions are able to help with improving and arresting deterioration of a patient’s physical ability - the ultimate goal of both practices is to help patients carry out their daily activities with as much ease as possible. Both professions are able to work with their patients on a longterm basis (if required) and increase their patient’s independence and quality of life.

In certain settings, occupational therapists and physical therapists may look identical, however there are specific distinctions between the two disciplines:

Occupational therapy focuses on evaluating and improving a person's functional ability, and on how the patient uses fine motor and cognitive skills to perform tasks that are meaningful to them. Simply put, occupational therapists help their patients perform day-to-day tasks. Patients recovering from injuries or have developmental or cognitive disabilities affecting their motor skills, emotions or behaviour are not directly treated for their injury by the occupational therapist, but are helped with their independence, the improvement of their life skills, and assisted with their ability to accomplish daily activities following their injury. Some occupational therapy may happen in a hospital or in the occupational therapist's office, however a big chunk of the therapy will be done in the patient’s home or work environment. The reason for this is that occupational therapy puts a strong emphasis on the practical aspects of helping individuals do the things they need to do in order to live their life to the fullest.

Physical therapy’s main focus, on the other hand, is working with people recovering from injuries and specifically working on a patient's gross motor functions. A physical therapist will focus on evaluating, diagnosing and treating a person's injured tissues and structures, and may use massage therapy, exercise, or acupuncture to treat these injuries. Therapy usually happens in a physical therapist's office, and not in a person's home. Physical therapy can also focus on preventing injuries, and it can help people avoid having to go through surgery or provide enough relief to get people off of pain medications. Physical therapists are specifically trained in body mechanics and in how various body systems are affected by motion, positioning, and exercise. In order to ease or increase body movement, they typically focus on improving strength, balance, and range of motion, often targeting the spine and lower body extremities.

In some cases, patients may begin treatment by seeing a physical therapist first, and then move on to seeing an occupational therapist. For example, a patient might see a physical therapist after having a stroke in order to build back muscle strength. However, once the muscles have strengthened, that patient may see an occupational therapist to help with taking a bath or shower, eating, buttoning a shirt, or using the restroom.

Occupational therapist helping a man eat after a stroke.

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