Differences Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy

What is the difference between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

This is a very common question, and a great one at that. Many people are curious about the relationship between Occupational Therapy (OT) and Physical Therapy / Physiotherapy (PT). There is often confusion about these two professions and some even think that the two are synonymous. There are significant differences between the two professions, and there are also many grey areas where the two overlap. Read below for a more detailed explanation of how the are similar and how they are different.

Occupational Therapy

As compared with Physical Therapy, occupational therapy tends to focus more on evaluating and improving a persons functional abilities and improving their ability to perform activities of daily living. An occupational therapist often does not directly treat a person’s injury using techniques such as manual therapy or acupuncture like a physical therapist would but more commonly helps a person optimize their independence and their ability to accomplish their daily activities following an injury or in situations of physical impairment.

Occupational therapists often will directly treat injuries, but more often occupational therapy focuses more on improving life skills and incorporating adaptive tools at times customized by the therapist. In some parts of the world occupational therapists utilize modalities such as use of ultrasound in injury rehabilitation, much like a physical therapist does.

Helping people improve their ability to carry out their daily tasks is a prime goal of the occupational therapist. An OT is more likely to perform on-site assessments of both the home environment and work environment and give recommendations on suitable adaptations of each to allow for a better quality of life. The occupational therapist is trained to modifying the physical environment as well as training the person to use assistive equipment to increase independence. While physical therapists do on-site assessments as well this tends to be less common.

Physical Therapy / Physiotherapy

The physical therapy profession (also called ‘physiotherapy’ in many parts of the world)  tends to be more focused on evaluating and diagnosing movement dysfunctions as well as treating a person’s injury itself. While an occupational therapist will often also do diagnosis, the physical therapist will be more likely to diagnose and treat the physical source of the problem; the injured tissues and structures. They work towards maximizing the bodies ability to move itself.

A physical therapist is more likely to make use of modalities in their treatment protocols. Such modalities include ultrasound, interferential current (IFC) and shockwave therapy. Some other types of treatment more commonly used in physical therapy treatment are acupuncture, intramuscular stimulation (IMS), cupping, and Active Release Technique (ART©).

Both physical and occupational therapists are trained extensively in anatomy and the musculoskeletal system resulting in both being very knowledgeable about musculoskeletal injuries and rehabilitation than a general practitioner medical doctor.

Overlap Between OT and PT

Although the two health care professions have differences in their focus there is much crossover between OT and PT. For an example of the crossover, an occupational therapist is often involved in educating people on how to prevent and avoid injuries, as well as educating people about the healing process, just like a physical therapist. Physical therapists in turn often help people improve their ability to do their daily activities through education and training. While there is this crossover between professions both play very important roles and are specialized in their areas of expertise. In many situations, both types of health-care professional are involved in injury recovery.

Video discussing the difference between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy:

36 thoughts on “Differences Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy”

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      pt because strokes cut oxygen to parts of your body and then you cant move and it becomes hard to to ADL activaties of daily living=== and if you can not recover from PT consider OT to modify your surrounding to make your ADL considerably easier 😀

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    Stephanie Smith

    Interesting, I didn’t really know about occupational therapy or know there was a difference between the two. My mom might need an occupational therapist, because she’s getting her hip replaced. Would that be the best option for her?

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      there is no “best” she will recieve both services while in the hospital. the OT in this case will teach her how to maintain total hip precautions and still perform self care and other tasks as maintaining total hip precautions is critical to safety. The PT will actually rehab the hip making it stronger again. Both services may work on transfers.

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        Not sure why they are separating these occupations so specifically at your hospital. PTs are extensively trained in total/partial hip precautions, protocols and extensively trained to teach patients these precautions. First semester we take a 3.5 month course called Basic Skills and ADLs. We actually watch joint replacement surgeries in the program and can participate at every stage of patient rehabilitation. We go through courses in gait analysis and training with adaptive equipment. We learned “Rehab” in school as encompassing all aspects of patient care: manual, therapeutic/rehabilitative exercise, ADLs and patient information.

        Do the PTs just walk in yank the leg around and walk out at your facility? No wonder the profession is losing credibility. I have no doubts about the skills and education of OTs. However, I can not speak for OTs as I did not go through their program. I find it insulting that an OT is speaking on what a PT can/can not do based on their personal experience rather than broader knowledge of the PT profession as a whole. I don’t understand in this forum why the PTs education and abilities are being incorrectly described.

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    Wow this was not at all a good article. A PT is trained and educated and licensed to practice everything a OT can do. But a OT is not educated and trained and licensed to do everything a PT can do. This is not mean to put down OT but it is true. There is a need for OTs but often they are seen as less important in many areas because insurance companies do not see the need to pay for the extra refinement to treatment. In a medical field where everyone is trying to find there piece of the pie you see encroachment of one field into another. Mostly OT and Chiro encroaching into PT as they are becoming the most used and most excepted with the most evidence to back up their treament techniques. As insurance companies look for more and more ways to cut cost i wouldnt be suprised to see OT and chiro loss more and more of their usefulness in the health care market. Sorry if that offends anyone but it is just how it is.

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      Actually that’s false. Let me know next time a PT develops splints and creatively integrates activities with adaptive equipment that mimics ADLs. OT’s perform ROM, MMT, facilitate strength exercises, mobilization of joints and extremities, and adapt said therapies to a person’s work, home, and recreational endeavors. Definitely more
      Brain-power on the part of an OT. You also see OT’s heavily in the school system, NOT pt’s. The pale scale is very similar so clearly pt’s don’t have an edge.

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        PTs do this all of the time. We learn to make splints in our programs as well as in the clinic. I know clinicians who make custom orthotics in shops within their clinics. My friend is the head of the Amputee division at a major hospital and performs evaluations and adjustments of prosthetics daily. I myself do crutch and walker training daily. There are specialty certifications for PTs in hand therapy and any other body part or specific injury you can think of. We are all on the same side. There a PTs throughout the school system. The ROM, MMT…that you described is our profession! Please look up curriculum for a Physical Therapy program and look up the definitions of both professions, I posted them below. Be grateful, you have less debt than a PT and you went to school for less time but your license and continuing education allows you to do just what a physical therapist can do. Please don’t be angry, you really got the best end of the deal.

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      I am both a physical and occupational therapist. You’re comment is inaccurate. Please educate yourself before making comments cutting down other health professions. It may benefit you to take a CEU course if you are a practicing PT, or if you are a MS of PT go to a transitional DPT program to get up to date on your practice in comparison to other health professions.

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        Hello Brittney…..totally unreleated to the article….you said you are dual licensed as PT and OT……i am currently an LMP looking to branch out….i would like to know which license you started with and if you find it practical being dual licensed. Thank you for your time and reaponse in advance.

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      Your understanding of the scope of PT and OT practice is false. PTs are not trained in everything OTs are trained in. Period. Occupational Therapists have much more extensive education in cognitive and perceptual rehabilitation which is critical for most patients who have had a cerebral vascular accident.
      This article is full of errors. So many that I don’t have time to address all of them, but your reply is even more incorrect.
      Kind regards.

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      “A PT is trained and educated and licensed to practice everything a OT can do.”

      This statement is false. Physical Therapists have very little education in Mental Health interventions and very little education in cognitive rehabilitation. Good occupational therapy programs have extensive coursework in Mental Health and cognitive rehabilitation. With regard to licensing in most states, their (PT) scope of practice does not cover “everything” that an OT’s scope of practice covers. Yes, there is overlap, but a PT cannot do “everything” an OT can do.

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    I am both a physical and occupational therapist. Both are highly educated health professionals preventing injuries, diagnosing impairments, and increasing quality of life. Before cutting either profession down, educate yourself on the differences between the professions and the similarities. OT works with your ADL’s/IADLs and PT focuses more on the impairment itself while setting functional goals. In acute care you will see both an OT/PT. It’s important to decrease pain, diagnose the impairment, and begin treating the impairment. While in the treatment process and you are unable to perform bathroom ADL’s, you will need an OT to help adapt this activity to make you more independent. Both professions are extremely important to EVERY patient population.

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    This debate is one of semantics. The true differences lie only between the individual practitioners.

    From the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA):
    “Physical therapy is a dynamic profession with an established theoretical and scientific base and widespread clinical applications in the restoration, maintenance, and promotion of optimal physical function. Physical therapists are health care professionals who help individuals maintain, restore, and improve movement, activity, and functioning, thereby enabling optimal performance and enhancing health, well-being, and quality of life.”

    From The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA):
    “TheOccupational Therapy Practice Framework (AOTA, 2014b) defines occupational therapy as the therapeutic use of everyday life activities (occupations) with individuals or
    groups for the purpose of enhancing or enabling participation in roles, habits, and
    routines in home, school, workplace, community, and other settings. Occupational
    therapy practitioners use their knowledge of the transactional relationship among
    the person, his or her engagement in valuable occupations, and the context to
    design occupation-based intervention plans that facilitate change or growth in
    client factors (body functions, body structures, values, beliefs, and spirituality)
    and skills (motor, process, and social interaction) needed for successful
    participation. Occupational therapy practitioners are concerned with the end
    result of participation and thus enable engagement through adaptations and
    modifications to the environment or objects within the environment when needed.”

    Based on these definitions one group manipulates the environment, one group manipulates the patient but depending on the practitioner, both can do either. Both therapists have the goal of optimal function. This country is so obsessed with black and white definitions they don’t even notice when they are creating redundant professions. We should all go the same school then have subsets in specialties…if we choose! Gone are the days of the general practitioner physician and we are pressing this specialization on our professions too.

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    There is a much bigger similarity between PT and OT than I thought! I’ve been exploring both of these professions to see if I’d potentially like to become either a PT or an OT. This article really helped me better understand that PT mostly treats an injury and OT mostly focuses on improving life skills of those injured. Thanks for helping me see the difference between the two.

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    As the mom of a 17yr daughter with cerebral palsy I must say the arguments that I see here are ridiculous. PT and OT are quite different. They are equally important and best of all, they have the ability to work jointly to help the special needs population become the most they can. We have had OT and PT in my daughters life since she was 4 months old. Without them she would not be able to walk, use her wheelchair correctly, hold and use a crayon, have her hands not in fists, and have the ability to use them correctly. Her legs would not be strong and have the ability to bear weight. BOTH have been invaluable, both are important and no, one is not better than the other.

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      Thank you for saying this and bringing the conversation back to the point, both provide an invaluable service to people. I don’t care who makes the patient better, I don’t care if I get credit. At the end of everyday, I just want every patient to be better than when they started.

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    This is not true. I am an Occupational Therapist who specializes in treating hands and upper extremities. We use many of the same tools that PT’s use, including joint mobilization, as well as, modalities i.e. ultrasound, infrared, fluidotherapy, electrical stimulation, etc. We do also include functional tasks, but PT’s are also incorporating some of that into their treatment plans. We also do hands on splinting for the upper extremities which most PT’s do not do. Basically in the clinic which I work, the OT’s are doing everything upper extremity, including some shoulder diagnoses, and the PT’s do the larger muscle groups, i.e. the back, neck, shoulder, and all the lower extremities.

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    I see a lot of ignorant comments on here.

    The people on here, who are putting down each others careers due to ignorance and a genuine belief that they think is correct; are the type of professionals who do not work well in a team.

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    I work closely with OTs and they provide uniques skills to my patients that are different than what I provide. I primarily help people with orthopedic injuries, but 20% of my caseload involves helping people after stroke. In my clinical setting, physical therapists help with balance, gait training, LE strengthening, LE mobility, and transfers. The OTs primarily focus on UE mobility, UE strength, transfers, hands function, fine motor control, and ADLS like buttoning shirts, etc. As you can see, there is overlap; however, both PTs and OTs provide very important benefits for the patient. Thanks for sharing this article. – Dr. Marc Robinson, PT, DPT, Cert. MDT

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    It’s helpful to know that a physiotherapist would be better able to identify and treat the source of issues in the body. My son was injured when he was playing around with other kids at school, and since then he hasn’t been able to use his arm like he used to. Maybe a physiotherapist could figure out what’s wrong and help get it working again.

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    It stood out to me when you explained that physical therapy is generally more focused on treating injuries. My husband is anticipated to have some trouble moving his arm due to a shoulder injury he got when he slipped and fell last weekend. Thanks for helping me see that physical therapy might be beneficial in his situation!

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