When people experience injuries, illnesses or other conditions that cause pain and/or limit their ability to function, there is a range of different medical specialists they might see. But when a client is seeking to restore their best ability to function in personally meaningful activities, they’ll typically visit either an occupational therapist (OT) or a physical therapist (PT).
These healthcare professionals work toward similar goals by tailoring comprehensive treatment plans to each client’s specific needs. But, when it comes to occupation therapy vs. physical therapy, they are not one in the same. There are some distinct differences in the client needs and therapeutic exercises each type of practitioner will encounter on the job.
We’re outlining the differences between an occupational therapist and a physical therapist, while also looking into how these two specialists may work in tandem.
There is a significant amount of overlap between the fields of OT and PT, which is why many struggle to determine the differences between the two.
Both occupational therapists and physical therapists dedicate their careers to rehabilitative care with an aim to improve or prevent the worsening of a client’s condition or quality of life. How each type of specialist goes about accomplishing this is where the main distinction lies.
Occupational therapy focuses on promoting independence in clients who struggle in performing day-to-day tasks. This involves the use of strategies, activity, environment and tool adaptations, and exercises to help clients develop new skills or make the adjustments needed to regain function after an injury or illness, or to help them make changes to accommodate a permanent disability.
Physical therapy is treatment provided by a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant that helps people improve their movement and physical function, manage pain and other chronic conditions, and recover from and prevent injury and chronic disease.
We enlisted Andrea Thinnes, OTD, OTR/L, associate professor of Occupational Therapy and academic mentor of the Occupational Therapy Gerontology Fellowship Program at Creighton University, to help further define each:
“OT focuses on improving a client’s ability to perform meaningful activities as independently as possible with a focus on how the person, their environment and their occupations intersect,” she explains. “PT, on the other hand, focuses on improving a client’s strength and ability to move and ambulate their body around their environment safely.”
To better understand the distinctions between the two, consider the following details.
Occupational therapists help clients develop, recover, improve and maintain the skills needed for day-to-day living. Their goal is to help clients perform personal responsibilities, self-care and workplace tasks as independently as possible.
In practice, this might include showing a client how to groom and feed themselves after an injury or condition that makes those things difficult. An occupational therapist may recommend accommodations for a client’s home to make it easier to complete these types of daily activities. They also help educate a client’s family about how to assist and care for them.
Some examples of conditions for which a client might visit an OT clinic include the following:
“OTs can work with clients from birth in the NICU to death in hospice care settings, and every age in between,” Thinnes says. “Examples include individuals with autism or cerebral palsy, individuals with brain injuries, strokes or other neuromuscular disorders, and individuals with mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.”
To become an occupational therapist, you’ll need at least a master’s degree in the field, although a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degree provides a deeper dive into research, advanced concepts and leadership within the field. You can expect post-graduate programs in OT to include courses in kinesiology, neuroscience and anatomy, while also including supervised fieldwork requirements during which students gain hands-on clinical experience.
All occupational therapists must also become licensed in their state. While state-specific licensing criteria may vary, candidates must pass the national certification exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). Those working in OT will also be expected to complete continuing education requirements in their respective states.
Finally, if you hope to pursue a particular specialization within the field of OT, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) offers a range of post-grad specialty certification opportunities in areas like gerontology, pediatrics and rehabilitation.
Once qualified to work in the field, there will be no shortage of openings, as occupational therapists are in high demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment is projected to grow 14 percent by 2031, which is nearly triple the national average for all occupations.
The occupational therapist salary prospects also soar well above average. As of May 2021, the median annual wages climbed to $85,570, compared to the national average of $45,760.
Physical therapists are licensed doctors who examine, diagnose and treat movement disfunction. They help clients struggling with the physical after-effects of injury or illness to improve their range of motion, strengthen their muscles and manage their pain. In addition to rehabilitative efforts, physical therapists also focus on preventative care.
A typical PT treatment plan might include using exercises, stretching maneuvers, hands-on therapy and equipment to help a client reach their functional goals. This process requires continual evaluation of a client’s progress, as well as educating both clients and their families about what to expect from the recovery process.
Some examples of conditions for which a client might visit a PT’s office include the following:
“PTs are trained to help any person who is experiencing a reduction in their ability to move their bodies and walk around their environment safely,” Thinnes offers, explaining that this can include those with spinal cord injuries, those recovering from strokes, athletes recovering from injuries, and more.
The process of becoming a physical therapist will require you to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from an accredited program. DPT programs typically last three years, and you can expect courses in anatomy, biomechanics, neuroscience and pharmacology. In addition to these foundational courses, students will take many applied clinical courses such as musculoskeletal and cardiopulmonary physical therapy.
There will also be a clinical component to your PT education, during which students gain supervised experience in areas like acute care and orthopedic care. It’s also common for candidates to complete a one-year residency after earning their doctoral degree in PT.
Finally, all physical therapists must be licensed to practice in their state. This process requires a passing score on the National Physical Therapy Examination, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Additional licensure criteria will vary by state.
Many physical therapists opt to become board-certified in a particular specialty. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers specialty certification opportunities in areas like orthopedics, pediatrics, sports and women’s health.
Similar to occupational therapists, demand for physical therapists is significant across the country. Employment is projected to grow 17 percent by 2031, and these professionals earned a median annual salary of $95,620 in May of 2021.
Another core similarity that OT and PT share is that practitioners in each field rarely work with a client completely independently. Rather, they serve as part of a greater care team comprised of primary care providers and specialists who work together to formulate a treatment plan.
While not all circumstances require the expertise of both an occupational therapist and a physical therapist, there are certain clients who benefit from both approaches to rehabilitative and preventative care.
For example, a multidisciplinary approach might benefit a client who is learning to function again after a stroke. In a case like this, the physical therapist will help them improve their strength, endurance and balance. The occupational therapist will focus more on exercises and activities that will help the client perform their daily tasks.
“The OT may be working on retraining the side of the body that was affected by the stroke to grab a comb and reach their arm up in the air to comb their hair,” Thinnes explains. “Meanwhile, a PT may be working with the client on sitting balance at the edge of the bed or chair while the client is trying to complete a grooming task such as comb their hair.”
While PT addresses the biomechanical aspects of the task, OT attends to its practical applications. “Both professionals are working on different aspects of an activity of daily living,” she continues. “The best practice involves an interprofessional team."
When occupational therapists and physical therapists can work closely together, clients are often given an even greater capacity to thrive as they rehabilitate from, or adjust to, their physical and mental health challenges.
As you work to determine which professional path is the best fit for your personal goals, you can be sure that both occupational therapists and physical therapists use their extensive knowledge and skills to improve the lives of their clients.
And now that you know more about the differences between physical therapy and occupational therapy, you’re better equipped to select the right option for you. Regardless of your chosen degree path, it’s essential that you attend a post-graduate program that will provide you with a top-notch education and dynamic hands-on experience.
Creighton University’s health sciences programs lead the nation in innovation, collaborative care and service to others. Graduates are highly competent, passionate and principled global citizens who want to make a difference in the world. Both the OT and PT programs are nationally ranked and promote interprofessional collaboration, meaning there are built-in opportunities to interact with students and faculty from other health disciplines.