Occupational Therapy: Getting back to the tasks of living

To the uninitiated, physical therapy and occupational therapy may seem to be pretty much the same thing.  So how do you know which one you need after you’ve suffered a health crisis – a fall, perhaps, or a stroke?

Both physical and occupational therapists deal with patients with physical injuries and limitations, but they approach those patients in very different ways.  The difference shows up in how they treat the issues, as well as in what issues those are.

Physical Therapists deal with “the big picture:” the treatment of disease, injury, or deformity by physical methods. They help patients with strength, balance, flexibility – the basics of motion.

Occupational therapists go beyond this. While they, too, deal with the overall issues, they also tend to the finer points of daily life and activities – the “occupation of life,” so to speak. They help clients relearn how to tie their shoes, do up buttons, and manipulate small objects. They can facilitate independence by teaching or re-teaching necessary tasks and skills such as writing, cooking, and even housework.

Both fields focus on the recovery of a functional impairment. The difference may be evident in setting and practice. In the hospital setting, the "occupational functions" that are being recovered include self-care activities such as restoring the ability of the patient to perform bathing, dressing, feeding, etc. Physical therapy will focus on mobility tasks such as getting out of bed, standing, walking etc.

In the outpatient setting, occupational therapists may focus on  "hand therapy,"  as hand injuries are common occupational hazards not only on the job but elsewhere, and on elbow and shoulder therapy.

Clients of occupational therapists may need help in those broader areas that physical therapy covers, as well; some clients of one type of therapist are also clients of the other, as the two go hand in hand in many cases.

Occupational therapy covers much more than physical therapy. Occupational therapists can aid clients in treating developmental and cognitive disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and learning disabilities; sensory disorders, such as autism; and mental health, including depression, addiction, anxiety and eating disorders.

One of the differences between physical therapists and occupational therapists is the help clients get from an OT with the world around them and the things that affect them in everyday life, not just the limitations caused by their own physical and mental state. An OT can help a client with:

  • Medication management: helping clients keep track of their medications and teaching them about their effects and interactions.
  • Routine and schedules: the OT can help develop an outline for the client to follow, and help them stick to it.
  • Education: an OT can suggest training, groups, and classes tailored to the client’s needs.

Occupational therapy treatments will frequently include manual therapy techniques, stretching, therapeutic exercise, hand strengthening, activities to improve manual dexterity, and caregiver training. Occupational therapists may also recommend appropriate adaptive equipment such as reachers, dressing aids, specialized dishes and utensils, and splints for positioning. Educating patients regarding their condition, accommodations, and proper use of adaptive equipment is an important aspect of occupational therapy. An occupational therapist will also create an individualized home exercise program to encourage a patient’s continued progress.

The PT and OT they will often collaborate to maximize the effectiveness of a session. For example, in a nursing home, the physical therapist may help the patient stand from a wheelchair and maintain standing balance while the occupational therapist assists the patient in hygiene tasks at the sink. At an outpatient clinic, they can work together to help a person resume gardening – the physical therapist would help with walking outdoors on uneven surfaces, using proper body mechanics while lifting and carrying gardening supplies, and practicing squatting; while the occupational therapist would assist with opening packages, using a trowel, and turning on the faucet.

Physical therapy and occupational therapy overlap in some areas, and at times it can be hard to tell which is which. The difference lies in the occupational therapist’s assistance in combining the physical, mental and environmental aspects of the client’s situation to arrive at a plan that will heal as well as re-enable the client to take up the reins in everyday life.  

We at Blue Sky Therapy are ready to assist your therapy – we’re the experts!

Blue Sky Therapy has a continued commitment to patient-driven quality, excellence, integrity and innovation in everything that we do. That’s why we are scrupulous about planning the treatment of each and every client, and carefully documenting the outcome!

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Blue Sky disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.


Holsman Physical Therapy

& Rehabilitation P.C.

Occupational Therapy

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