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Are you considering a career in healthcare with a focus on therapy and rehabilitation? If so, you may have narrowed the list down to occupational therapist or physical therapist, but what’s the difference? Both of these careers are rewarding, challenging, and have strong job outlooks and growth potential; however, each career has its own place within patient rehabilitation, and each require specific education to become one.
The American Physical Therapy Association defines the role of physical therapists and physical therapy assistants as providing intervention to “promote the ability to move, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability.” But what does this actually mean? Physical therapy, like many health care roles, can appear different depending on what patients a physical therapist or assistant is working with. Physical therapists often work with people recovering from orthopedic issues, such as back pain, joint pain, muscular pain, and/or weakness in any of those areas. If an individual undergoes surgery to remedy an ongoing joint problem or injury, a physical therapist will work to improve range of motion and strength of the areas affected.
Alternatively, some physical therapists specialize in the treatment of neurological conditions or injuries, and can even advance their practice to obtain a Neurological Clinical Specialist certification. Most often, intervention in this area involves addressing mobility, balance, and functional movement. Major goals of in the treatment of individuals experiencing functional decline following neurologic injury or disease include improving independence and safety in regards to walking, navigating the stairs and outdoor environments, and reducing the risk of falling. Progression towards these goals involves working on strengthening, gait training, exercise, neuromuscular reeducation, and functional transfer practice (“transfers” meaning the transition from sitting on one surface and moving to another surface). Neurological physical therapists might also choose to obtain a specialization as an Assistive Technology Professional and/or a Seating and Mobility Specialist to assist patients in obtaining properly fitting and adaptive custom wheelchairs.
Physical therapists are also instrumental in working with pediatric populations in schools or private clinics to assist children in meeting developmental milestones as well as overcome functional movement limitations caused by injury or chronic conditions.
Physical therapists and physical therapy assistants provide outstanding services for their patients and work hard to help them recover to the best of their abilities.
As an occupational therapist myself, I am a little partial to this field. We have a much broader scope than you might imagine. The American Occupational Therapy Association defines occupational therapy as “the only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities.” In this case, the “daily activities” that people participate in are what we as therapists consider “occupations” and describe not only our profession’s name but the foundation of our strategy toward intervention. Traditionally, many people (and medical professionals!) believe that the main difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy is that occupational therapy addresses the upper body and physical therapy addresses the lower body. This is not exactly correct. As mentioned previously, physical therapists who work with orthopedic conditions address those conditions no matter where they are located on the body. Occupational therapy most likely obtained this designation as humans tend to use their hands (or upper body in general) to complete occupations. Occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants use functional daily and therapeutic tasks to improve independence and help people return to desired activities (such as work, hobbies, etc.).
We have the joyous job of employing our personal creativity to come up with a variety of functional and fun tasks to help our patients get better. During the course of the day, I may help someone improve their ability to maintain their balance when making tight turns while putting away laundry; improve their ability to gather supplies to make a simple meal using the oven; work on visual skills to improve an individual’s ability to return to driving; or work on fine motor tasks to improve an individual’s ability to legibly sign their name.
Occupational therapy professionals can also be divided further into specialties. Therapists working with patients affected by neurological conditions will work on a wide variety of tasks, including all those previously described. Self-care, functional balance, strength and range of motion of an affected arm or hand (for example, following a stroke), vision, and even functional cognition—all of these are within our scope of practice. If an individual is concerned with returning to work or managing their household, we may work with them on challenging but realistic cognitive tasks, such as shopping online for specific items and upgrade the challenge by adjusting for different circumstances. Occupational therapy professionals can also become specialized in neurological services, such as becoming a Certified Stroke Rehabilitation Specialist or a Certified Brain Injury Specialist.
Interested more in orthopedic conditions? Many occupational therapists enjoy working with patients following hand injuries or surgeries and work toward becoming a Certified Hand Therapist. Others working in a more “orthopedic” setting may work with individuals who have undergone hip replacement surgery and now have post-surgical mobility restrictions learn how to dress themselves independently using long-handled adaptive equipment such as a long-handled reacher or sock-aid.
Pediatric occupational therapy is a huge subset of the field, and incorporates not only gross and fine motor abilities of a child but also sensory and visual processing dysfunction—areas that are not addressed by physical therapy.
Overall, occupational therapy and physical therapy do have some overlap between them. Sometimes they are working on a similar skill, but with a different mindset. For example, a physical therapist may work on dynamic balance to improve safety and weight-shifting skills necessary for ambulation and walking up stairs. An occupational therapist may work on dynamic balance in regards to navigating between a table and the kitchen counter in order to prepare and eat a meal safely and easily. The primary difference boils down to the actual name describing occupational therapy—occupations. Occupational therapists work on improving a person’s ability to participate in the daily activities of life.