Occupational and Physical Therapy: Similar but Different


Both occupational and physical therapy represent excellent career choices that offer therapists opportunities to work with people whose lives can be fundamentally changed for the better. As you may know from looking at the job listings here on our website, the two therapies are similar in some ways but very different in others. The point of this post is to briefly address how the two jobs compare.

The differences and similarities you will read in this blog post apply to both permanent and locum tenens positions throughout the U.S. How you personally view the similarities and differences may determine which kinds of jobs you prefer.

Daily Life vs. Movement

The biggest difference between occupational and physical therapy are their primary objectives. St. Catherine University describes it very accurately in saying that the occupational therapist (OT) really focuses on the ‘whole person’ rather than just one specific body part or function, as the physical therapist (PT) does.

The University goes on to explain that OTs work with clients to improve daily living despite limiting physical conditions. For example, an OT may work with someone whose life has been permanently altered due to injuries suffered in an automobile accident. That person may have to learn new ways of doing things in order to return to a life that is as normal as possible.

A PT works with patients who need to improve performance and/or movement in one particular area. For example, the same fictional car accident victim we just described may work with a physical therapist to improve movement of a damaged leg or arm. The physical therapist may teach the accident victim how to walk again. It is all about function and movement.

With their different primary objectives also comes different roles for OTs and PTs. The PT’s role tends to be more short term while the OT invests in patients for longer periods of time. In some cases, patients can work with an OT for years. It really just depends on the patient’s needs and circumstances.

Where They Are Similar

Having different primary objectives does not mean occupational therapy and physical therapy have nothing in common. In fact, quite the opposite is true and there are plenty of similarities between the two. It is not unheard of for therapists to start in one area of therapy and then move to the other.

St. Catherine University points out at least four areas of similarity as follows:

  • Teaching people how to prevent and avoid future injuries
  • Educating patients about the healing process
  • Improving a patient’s daily life through training and education
  • Specializing in certain areas of patient care and development.

The last of the four points is something a lot of new therapists may not understand. Take the broad scope of physical therapy, as just one example. The therapist may work with all sorts of patients early on, including accident victims, athletes, and people recovering from surgery. Then a particular case or two may spark the therapist to specialize in one particular area by undergoing additional training. PTs can specialize in everything from sports injuries to back injuries to vestibular disorders.

Both kinds of therapists fill a vital role in helping patients enjoy full and productive lives despite temporary or long-term disabilities. Often the biggest reward is to see patients accomplish more than they ever thought they could. Most importantly though, OTs and PTs do not tend to look at what they do as separate and competing. They often work together to help patients who want to learn to live the kinds of lives they deserve.

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