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Physical Therapy or Occupational Therapy? Seeking the Right Care

by Dwight Heller, OT

Occupational therapy and physical therapy are commonly confused with each other. While, occupational and physical therapy have a lot of similarities including improving quality of life, increasing independence, reducing pain and discomfort, and preventing further injury or injury recurrence, there are also key differences between the two, especially when it comes to their approach to treatment.

Occupational and Physical Therapy: The Differences

The primary distinction between the two disciplines is that physical therapy’s focus is gross motor function, while occupational therapy focuses on how the patient uses fine motor and cognitive skills to perform tasks that are meaningful to them.  Furthermore, physical therapy with focus on muscle strengthening through exercises and occupational therapy will focus on muscle strengthening through functional simulated activities of daily living.

Physical therapy, often abbreviated PT, helps patients who have experienced an injury or illness resulting in pain, muscle weakness, or decreased range of motion which has impacted their bodily function in some way. A physical therapist’s goal is to regulate and manage pain, improve muscle weakness, increase endurance, and generally improve range of motion to help the patient gain back as much of their pre-injury mobility as possible and prevent disability. Physical therapy helps in preventing injuries and can help people avoid surgery or a long term-reliance on medications.

Occupational therapy, often abbreviated OT, helps patients regain their independence after suffering from disability, developmental delays, or workplace injuries. An occupational therapist’s goal is to help a patient regain their independence through self-care, returning to work, or getting back to the leisure activities they enjoy, depending on their situation and needs. Occupational therapists help patients fully engage in daily life.

Occupational and Physical Therapy: Similarities

Although the fields of occupational therapy and physical therapy serve different roles in health care, there is a lot of crossover between the two.

  • Both educate people on how to prevent and avoid injuries.
  • Both educate people about the healing process.
  • Both assist people with improving their ability to perform daily activities through training and education.
  • Both play very important roles and specialize in their areas of expertise.
  • Both share the goal of helping the client progress.

How Both OT and PT Support a Patient’s Journey

All therapy disciplines work together to help find the meaning behind the healing process. While a physical therapist focuses on the biomechanical aspects of getting a patient moving, an occupational therapist works on using that movement to help them carry out activities.

A common example of when patient’s benefit from the seamless collaboration between the disciplines is in stroke patients. During a stroke, brain cells die from lack of oxygen caused by a ruptured or blocked artery in the brain. When this happens, the brain must establish new paths for carrying out all kinds of functioning. Therapists work together to address issues, such as weakness on one side of the body or the inability to walk or move limbs and get the patient back to completing tasks as independently as possible.

Getting the Help You Need

Whether you’ve suffered an injury from activity that’s limiting your lifestyle, or a health emergency that’s left you with disability or deficits, talk to your provider about your options for rehabilitative care and restoring your lifestyle.

Learn more about Rehabilitation Services at UPMC in the Susquehanna region.