Physical Therapy vs. Occupational Therapy – What is the Difference?

James S. Koske Jr., MPT

Rehabilitative Therapists provide an invaluable service to their patients by offering therapies and modalities designed to facilitate recovery and return to work or daily activities.  Patients may have been injured or may have an illness which impacts musculoskeletal and/or cognitive and motor functions. A patient may see a Physical Therapist after a brain injury to regain balance, coordination, strength and function, and they may also see an Occupational Therapist to relearn how to eat, write or function in their home again. In this article, I will discuss the similarities and differences in the Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy professions.

Physical Therapists work with patients who have been injured or have had surgery, although they also perform therapies designed to prevent injury or to effect healing in place of surgery. They evaluate, diagnose and treat problems affecting the musculoskeletal system. They provide a variety of skills/techniques as well as develop specific exercise programs to help patients achieve certain recovery goals. Physical Therapists:

  • Must attend an accredited Physical Therapy School
  • Must be licensed for the state(s) in which they practice
  • Many have doctorates or master’s degrees
  • May specialize in areas of medicine, such as Orthopaedics, Gerontology, Sports, Neurology, Pediatrics or Women’s Health
  • May also specialize in treating certain areas of the body, such as the hand or back/neck
  • May work in hospitals, free-standing clinics, for physician practices, or for home health companies

Occupational therapists focus on helping patients learn/perform work tasks or daily activities of living that they may be unable to do after an injury, but also after a stroke, or a condition causing memory loss or cognitive dysfunction.  They tend to work with the patient in the hospital, their homes or workplaces, but may practice at special clinics set up to mimic these environments.  They may order adaptive devices or make recommendations about home or work modifications.  They also:

  • Must attend an accredited Occupational Therapy School
  • May need a license for the state(s) in which they practice, but must pass a national certification exam & complete fieldwork requirements
  • Many have doctorates or master’s degrees
  • May specialize in areas of medicine, such as Gerontology, Neurology, Mental Health or Physical Rehabilitation
  • Employed by free-standing clinics, hospitals, rehab facilities
  • May also specialize in these areas:
    • Community mobility
    • Feeding, eating and swallowing
    • Environmental modification
    • Low/poor vision
    • School systems
    • Driving

Working together or separately, both Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists perform vital services that help patients recover from physical or cognitive challenges to live more fully. OSC employs a team of talented Physical Therapists and Physical Therapy Assistants at our dedicated Physical Therapy Center.