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

Published: Sunday, September 4, 2022
Jim Hlavacek
Physical Therapist

When a doctor recommends Physical Therapy or Occupational Therapy many people don’t realize the difference between the two.  Both rehabilitation disciplines have the same goal; to help patients manage or eliminate pain caused by various factors such as illness, accidents, post-surgery recovery and to improve overall daily function.  They both use similar modalities, however there are many differences and individual characteristics that set these disciplines apart.

Physical Therapy

Physical Therapists focus on treating pain, increasing range of motion and addressing specific muscle weakness that has occurred due to illness or injuries. A Physical Therapist may use a combination of hands-on therapy, strength training and cardiovascular conditioning to assist patients to improve their quality of life and increase overall function.

Physical Therapy can be used for:

  • Joint Conditions (for example: osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Neurological Conditions (for example: multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, rehabilitation after a stroke)
  • Heart Conditions
  • Recovery after Surgery
  • Vestibular Conditions
  • Improving Sports Performance

Physical Therapists can use the following techniques:

  • Physical exercises
  • Stretching
  • Hands on manual therapy
  • Hot and cold modalities
  • Massage
  • Ultrasound and Electrical Stimulation
  • Dry Needling

Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapists treat patients with various conditions and illnesses that include physical, mental and emotional issues.  These issues keep people from performing their daily tasks and living the best lives they can.  Occupational Therapy is vital to empowering and enabling people to live independently, perform daily tasks and increase their quality of life.  Some goals for an Occupational Therapist include helping people develop motor skills needed to use tools and utensils, to improve hand eye coordination and to learn basic tasks like getting dressed and bathing.  Additionally, a specific group of Occupational Therapists specialize in the treatment of hand to improve function after an accident, injury or illness.

Occupational Therapy can be used for:

  • Rehabilitation from an injury or surgery
  • Pain Management
  • Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid Arthritis and other joint conditions
  • Autism, learning disorders and other joint conditions
  • Cerebral palsy, stroke, multiple sclerosis and other neurological conditions
  • Depression, anxiety, dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Surgery or Injury of the Hand and Elbow

Occupational Therapists can use the following techniques:

  • Teaching a patient techniques and exercises to increase range of motion and manage pain
  • Helping patients to learn how to do daily tasks (showering, getting dressed, independence with eating)
  • Helping assess and adapt the home or workplace to make everyday life easier
  • Helping patients to develop fine motor skills
  • Educating caregivers and family to help patients at home.

Both Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy have similar goals of helping a patient improve their condition, reduce pain, increase range of motion, improve strength and balance and to increase overall function.  At the same time, they have distinct differences.  Physical Therapy focuses more on the physical side of treatment and specific body parts, while occupational therapy focuses on helping patients perform daily tasks and takes a wider approach that focuses on a person’s overall function.

Learn More

The Rehabilitation Institute is pleased to offer both Physical and Occupational Therapy Services.  If you have any other questions or are looking for care please call 770-219-8200.