What is Physical Therapy vs. Occupational Therapy?

PT and OT are two distinct professions within the healthcare system; however, there is some overlap between the two professions.  According to The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), “occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants help people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations).”  According to The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), “Physical therapists (PTs) are highly-educated, licensed health care professionals who can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore mobility - in many cases without expensive surgery and often reducing the need for long-term use of prescription medications and their side effects.”  Just by looking at these too descriptions, the overall difference between the two professions is still unclear.  Each profession utilizes exercises, functional tasks, manual techniques, education, etc. to treat patients.  Each profession can be found in multiple settings including hospitals, private practice, rehabilitation centers, schools, home health agencies, etc.  Each profession can assist with both lower extremity and upper extremity function.  So then what’s the difference?

PT and OT have different primary focuses during treatment.  PTs utilize treatment techniques in order to optimize movement and mobility.  OTs work to specifically restore function.  Does this mean that PTs cannot work toward functional goals and OTs cannot work to improve motion and mobility? NO.  It’s just a matter of focus.  PTs tend to focus more on strengthening muscles in order to perform tasks like standing up and walking which can then be used for a functional purpose while OTs tend to focus on functions like using the shower which is gained through certain mobility tasks including rising from sitting.  Overlap between the two professions happens often, and these health care professionals often work together in order to reach a common goal of returning a patient back to proper function.

Some specific differences do exist between the two professions.  OTs for example tend to work a lot with adaptive equipment including sock aides, reaching devices, silverware with various grips, etc.  Rather than adaptive equipment, PTs tend to use assistive devices such as walkers, crutches, canes, etc.  The majority of PTs earn a doctoral degree (by 2015, a doctorate will be required for licensure) and must pass a national licensing exam.  The majority of OTs earn a master’s degree (although a doctoral degree is available, but not required) and must pass a national licensing exam.  Psychology is required during the curriculum for both professions; however, OT tends to focus more on this subject which makes them more equipped for working with environmental desensitization.  While PTs can work with children who have disabilities including those on the autism spectrum, OTs are trained to work on desensitization training for children who have difficulty adjusting to different environmental stimuli.

Both PT and OT are important professions within the healthcare system.  There is a lot of overlap between the two which can lead to confusion.  We hope that this blog was informative and assists with your understanding of both the similarities and the differences between PT and OT. If you have any questions on this topic or any others in which you are interested, feel free to leave any questions, comments, or suggestions. Thank you for reading and stay active.







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