Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy


Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory” (Albert Schweitzer).  If your health is suffering, that happiness may be more difficult to achieve.  Physical therapy and / or occupational therapy may be able to help. Both involve the development and implementation of hands on treatment plans and both allow the therapist to work directly with the patient and monitor his or her progress.  While there are some similarities, these types of therapy also have some distinctive differences that set them apart.


Basic Differences

Physical therapy, or PT for short, is exactly what it sounds like, therapy that improves or corrects physical limitations and impairments.  Occupational therapy (OT) is less true to its name.  Unlike the name suggests, occupational therapy is not designed around your job.  Instead, it focuses on enabling the patient to do the things that he or she wants in daily life.  Sometimes, occupational therapy will include treatment for physical challenges but will also encompass adapting the person’s environment and surroundings to achieve the established goals.

The easiest way to understand the basic differences of physical and occupational therapy is with an example.  Let’s say a healthy man in his mid-30’s is involved in a car accident.  In the accident this patient suffers a traumatic brain injury as well as broken bones and torn ligaments that require surgery.  Post-surgery, this patient is referred to both physical and occupational therapy.  His physical therapist will work with both the primary physician, surgeon’s team and occupational therapist to develop a treatment plan focused on regaining mobility, range of motion, flexibility and improve healing.  In short, the PT will work to treat all the physical needs of the patient.

This same patient will also work with an occupational therapist.  The OT will work to help the patient recover and reorient after the brain injury.  The home and workplace may both need to be modified to accommodate the patient’s new needs.  In addition, exercises and structures can be set up to assist the patient with issues such as memory loss, organization and accurately tracking time.  The occupational therapist will work to improve the patient’s condition and adapt the environment as needed.


Educational requirements

Both physical and occupational therapists are required to meet high educational standards.  Physical therapists following a traditional educational path will complete a health related Bachelor’s degree.  After which, they will need to complete an additional 3 year Doctor of Physical Therapy or DPT program.  Once that is done, additional state licensing requirements must be met.

Occupational therapist also have educational and licensing requirements but with a different focus.  OT’s need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field and a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy.  Most states also require that applicants pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) examination.


Types of Treatment

Physical therapists will use an assortment of techniques and tools when implementing a treatment plan.  These techniques can be broken down into active and passive exercises.  Active therapy involves exercises and movement performed by the patient while passive treatments are performed by the physical therapist.  Active therapy includes any patient exercises.  A physical therapists office will usually have gym equipment and other items such as exercise balls and bands available for patient use.

Passive treatment is also an important part of treatment, but is performed by the physical therapist.  A good example of passive treatment is massage therapy.  The therapist is the one performing the therapy but it is equally important.  Massage can improve blood flow to the affected area reduce pain and swelling.  Electrical stimulation therapy is another good example of passive treatment.  The therapist applies a machine to the patient that sends tiny, painless electrical waves through your body to help relieve pain.  With both massage and electrical stimulation, the patient is passive while the therapist or machine does most of the work.

Occupational therapy has an entirely different set of tools and techniques involved in treatment plans.  An OT uses functional and physiological exercises to help patients achieve his or her daily living goals.  Functional therapy can involve treatment of conditions like carpal tunnel or other ailments caused by repetitive motions.  When treating something like carpal tunnel, therapy can consist of stretching and strengthening exercises for the wrist and hand.  But it may also include adapting the patient’s work or home life environment to help achieve the most function possible.  This could include reconfiguring the home and workspace to maximize function.  The physiological aspect of treatment emphasizes the patient’s mental, emotional physiological health, and environmental needs.  Specific treatment tools and plans can be wide-ranging are established after a thorough patient assessment.



A physical therapist focuses on education and tools that are going to improve patients’ physical health.  The optimum goals are improved range of motion, mobility, and flexibility.  At the center of physical therapy is the accomplishment of a physically improved patient.

An occupational therapist has a different set of goals.  While a physically healthy patient is important, an OT must look at a patient’s mental wellbeing and analyze his or her environment to find the best way to make that environment function for the patient.  The goal for an OT is to help his or her patient achieve the highest functionality within his or her home or job and to maintain the healthiest state of mind.  This may involve some physical exercises but the initial analysis and end goals are quite different.



Despite the many differences between PT’s and OT’s, you can often find them on the same team.  A patient may need a wide array of assistance depending on his or her needs.  It is not uncommon to find a physical therapist, occupational therapist, and physician all working together to promote the best health possible for their patients.  Coordinating and implementing the most effective treatment possible is at the heart of every type of therapy.  Contact Us if you need assistance, physical and/or occupational therapy have many concrete treatments that can be specifically tailored to meet your needs.