I believe it is important to make a distinction between occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT), as it seems that those two professions are sometimes lumped together.

Both PT and OT are Rehab Services

Physical therapy and occupational therapy are basically both rehab services. Both professions deal with the way people function day to day.

Both professions make sure you’re living your best quality of life and that you’re participating in society to your best ability.

Overall, that is what PT and OT have in common.

Physical Therapists Improve the Way You Move

Physical therapy (PT) is mostly concerned with how you’re moving. PT improves the way you move.

Physical therapy is helpful for reducing pain, for example, knee pain, back pain, shoulder pain, etc. Physical therapists address pain.

They can prescribe you canes and walkers if you need an assistive device for walking. Once they help you get your cane or walker, they can fit the device to the correct height and teach you how to use it.

This type of training is especially useful for going up and down curbs, or getting in and out of the car.

PTs may give you exercises to do to improve your balance, your walking, your strength, your endurance, and your flexibility.

Basically, physical therapists are interested in how you’re moving around your environment, how you’re getting out of bed, how you’re getting up off the chair, how you’re getting in and out of the car, how you’re walking, climbing stairs, etc.

A PT will do what needs to be done to make sure that your movement is as good as possible.

OTs Maximize your Activities of Daily Living

Occupational therapists are also interested in how you’re moving around, but they’re primarily focused on how you’re doing certain activities of daily living (ADLs).

For example, how are you showering, how are you dressing, can you get your clothes out of the closet, can you get your clothes out of the drawer, are you able to prepare a meal, etc.

Compared to physical therapy, occupational therapy focuses more on things like toileting, bathing, and dressing.

OTs can help you with cooking, cleaning, planning your schedule or meals, and even driving.

Some PTs and OTs Specialize in Certain Problems

Then within the professions of PT and OT, there are certain specialties. This is very similar to medicine, where some doctors are general primary care providers and other doctors become specialists.

For example, within physical therapy, there is a pelvic health specialty, which is for men and women with bladder problems.

There is also vestibular physical therapy, which is for people with dizziness, vertigo, and balance problems.

Within occupational therapy, for example, there is an occupational therapy specialty called “low vision.” These specialists help people that are having macular degeneration, glaucoma, or other vision problems that are affecting day to day activities.

Low vision OTs know specifically how to help you with certain tasks like reading the labels on your medication bottles, if you have a vision problem.

They may come up with adaptive equipment or strategies to help you, so that you can manage your activities of daily living even though you don’t see very well.

Some occupational therapists also specialize in vestibular therapy!

Occupational therapy and physical therapy have a lot in common, but they have two different focuses.

I have shared two examples of specialties within each profession. There are many more specialties within each field.

Not every PT or OT chooses to become a specialist.

Where can You Find a PT or OT?

You can receive both PT and OT at a hospital, a rehab facility, a nursing home, in your own home through skilled home health, or at an outpatient clinic.

The environment where you may receive occupational therapy or physical therapy is often the same.

For example, you may receive both PT and OT in the hospital. Or you may receive both PT and OT through home health.

Not every patient needs both PT and OT. It depends on what you are having difficulty with from day to day.

Talk to your doctor or nurse to find out if you may need PT or OT.

As you can see there are a few similarities and many differences between physical therapy and occupational therapy. I hope this article has helped clear up any questions.


This blog is provided for informational purposes only. The content and any comments by Dr. Kim Bell, DPT are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. The details of any case mentioned in this post represent a typical patient that Dr. Bell might see and do not describe the circumstances of a specific individual.

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