If you are rehabilitating from physical impairments resulting from illness or injury, physical and/or occupational therapy are likely to be recommended as part of that process. Often, patients who have been referred to these services are confused about the differences between these two similar forms of therapy. To help ease your way through your care planning efforts, here are 2 important differences between physical therapy and occupational therapy.
Both physical and occupational therapies strive to aid patients in restoring day-to-day function and ability lost to illness or injury. However, the areas in which these two disciplines focus during that process differs to some extent. Physical therapy is primarily focused on treating impairments themselves, helping patients maximize overall mobility, functional ability, wellness and quality of life. Occupational therapy is chiefly focused on helping patients function despite impairment, improving their ability to perform specific daily tasks and activities related to daily life at home or in the workplace.
Since physical therapy and occupational therapy focus on different aspects of rehabilitation, the basic approach to treatment differs between the two disciplines. In physical therapy, with its focus on a person's impairment itself, treatment generally centers around improving the strength, mobility and function of the musculoskeletal system. Therapists work to help patients maintain or regain functions like walking, balance, and proper joint function, for instance, and to reduce pain as patients move. Interventions used to address these issues may include targeted exercise and stretching, balance training, gait training, and patient education in topics like proper body mechanics, injury prevention, and appropriate physical activities and/or limitations, among others.
Occupational therapy, on the other hand, is focused on improving a patient's ability to perform daily activities—essentially helping patients learn to work around impairments, whether they are temporary or permanent, as they work through their day-to-day routines. Therapists work to help patients learn to perform tasks made difficult by their impairments more easily and efficiently, which according to a patient's individual needs, may include dressing, bathing, cooking, eating, toileting, driving, writing and other common household or work-related tasks. Interventions may include targeted exercise—hand strengthening, for instance—patient training in the use of heat and cold therapy and other pain control techniques, education in the use of adaptive devices, splints or braces, and modifications of the home and/or workplace environment, among others.
In short, physical therapy is intent on getting patients up and moving with less difficulty and discomfort while occupational therapy works to make it easier for patients to do the things they want and need to do every day. Knowing the key differences between the two can help you make solid decisions about your care as you recover from illness or injury, making it easier to decide whether you can benefit from one or both of these therapies as you work towards rehabilitation.