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Physical Therapy vs Occupational Therapy: What's the Difference?

Physical therapy and occupational therapy are two types of therapy that are often confused with each other. Physical therapy focuses on restoring physical mobility and strength, while occupational therapy helps patients to improve functional abilities with everyday activities. Both disciplines are essential for helping patients recover from injuries and illnesses and provide invaluable assistance for people with disabilities.

What is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy (PT) can be defined as a form of care that aims to ease pain and help the patient function, move, and overall live a higher quality of physical life. The goal of physical therapy is to improve the quality of one's life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education. Each of these is individually tailored to the specific needs of the patient. While many can benefit from physical therapy, PT can help particularly aid in the reduction of pain and increase of mobility in patients with neurological diseases, traumatic injury, everyday bodily strain, and more.

What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) is a form of therapy that aims to increase the functionality of patients with physical, sensory, or cognitive problems. Occupational therapy treatments involve the use of everyday activities or occupations to improve a patient's ability to perform everyday tasks. Occupational therapy takes a comprehensive approach to treatment in that it focuses on treating the entirety of a patient and their capabilities rather than focusing on a specific injury that may be stunting their abilities. For example, an occupational therapist may focus on developing a patient's fine motor skills as a whole to allow that patient to handle items such as a pen or key. Or they can work to improve hand-eye coordination which is a necessary skill associated with getting dressed and going to the bathroom. Taking this therapeutic approach to achieve everyday activities at a higher, more independent level through the development, recovery, and overall improvement of a patient concerning the execution of daily activities is what differentiates occupational therapy.

OT and PT: The Main Similarities

Both Physical and Occupational Therapy aims to better a patient's quality of life through the improvement of their daily mobility and functionality. In both practices, therapists work with the specific needs of the patient to deliver hands-on rehabilitative treatment to improve everyday functionality associated with injuries or disabilities. These practices can often be seen as synonymous as a vast majority of physical and occupational therapists even collect similar undergraduate degrees necessary to make them eligible for this field of practice. However, with all of these overlappings, it is important to note the specialties and treatments of each that differentiate the two fields.

OT and PT Specialties

While Physical and Occupational Therapy both aim to better a patient's quality of life through the improvement of their daily mobility and functionality, they each have their specialties that allow for the optimal treatment of a patient. These specialties include but are not limited to:

Physical Therapy Specialties:

1. Fractured Bone

2. Sprained Joint

3. Sports Injuries (including concussions)

4. Cardiopulmonary Conditions

5. Musculoskeletal Conditions

Occupational Therapy Specialties:

1. Birth Injuries or Defects

2. Development Disorders

3. Traumatic Injuries to the Brain or Spinal Cord

4. Sensory Processing Disorders

5. Mental or Behavioral Health Problems

In addition to different specialties, physical therapy and occupational therapy often utilize different techniques as well. These differing techniques often associated with the types of therapies include but are not limited to:

Physical Therapy Techniques:

1. Massages

2. Hot and Cold Applications

3. Stretching Exercises

4. Movement Exercises

5. Electrical Stimulations for Muscles and Nerves

Occupational Therapy Techniques:

1. Education on Stress Management Strategies

2. Education on how to Best Help the Patient Extended to Household Members

3. Education on Proper Usage of Assistive Devices, Such as a Walker or Cane

4. Implementing Assistive Devices into a Patient's Home

5. Direct Education of Re-learnings Everyday Tasks, Such as Dressing and Bathing

How to Know Whether You Need OT or PT?

While Physical and Occupational Therapy can have overlapping goals and conditions in which they treat, they also differ. Because of this, differentiating whether you need Occupational Therapy or Physical Therapy treatment is important. In a broad scope, physical therapy focuses on restoring or improving a patient's mobility, strength, or range of motion. While occupational therapy aims to improve motor skills as a whole which are associated with the performance of daily tasks. When determining whether you need physical or occupational therapy treatment, it is important to have a general understanding of what they aim to achieve. Physical therapists aim to improve a patient's range of motion and mobility. While occupational therapists aim to improve the quality of movement to promote increased independence in a patient's daily routine. If you are ever unsure of which form of therapy is best for you or a loved one, contact a licensed physical or occupational therapist who can give guidance and help build a treatment plan to reach your individual goals.

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