What’s the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

You reach up to pull a glass off the shelf, or to put some dishes away when you’re emptying the dishwasher. Lift your arm up to brush your hair. Reach behind your back to help put your belt on. These are everyday activities that most of us take for granted. The reality is that there are thousands of neuro- and muscular events occurring when you – for example – extend your arm, lift it above your head, and grasp your fingers around that drinking glass. 

For some people, injuries and impairments from surgery and/or radiation treatments can cause pain and issues with those everyday movements. And sometimes that can be really frustrating and disheartening. When your quality of life is affected, it’s time to call in a therapist. But do you need physical therapy or an occupational therapist? Or both?

Occupational therapists use a holistic, patient-centered approach that adapts, modifies and/or restores a person’s ability to successfully participate in everyday activities and improves one’s overall quality of life. They focus on an individual as a whole, providing them with interventions that support maximum physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. An occupational therapist can help develop coping skills for fatigue or for impaired activity tolerance. They can work with you to modify tasks to support engagement in meaningful activities. They provide exercises to increase overall functional range of motion and strength to decrease pain. As well as collaborating and providing an individual with a long-term management routine that fits best into their life, supporting the wellbeing in the everyday dimensions of a person’s life. 

Physical therapists treat an individual’s physical impairment from a biomechanical perspective. Helping individuals develop, maintain, and restore maximum body movement and physical function. Both PTs and OTs work to improve one’s overall functional skill level, quality of life, and wellbeing. Each collaborates with their patient to determine their needs, goal setting, and continues to monitor their progress to achieve their desired goals. 

Both an OT and a PT will provide you with the tools and support to be able to lift your arm overhead to reach up for that glass. Occupational therapy focuses on small, specific exercise programs to increase activity tolerance and modifications for energy conservation so you can participate in those meaningful activities and those everyday tasks again.