What is the Difference Between Physical and Occupational Therapy?

When you’re dealing with illness or injury, both the cause and the cure often involve body mechanics. Maybe you’ve broken a bone. Maybe your osteoarthritis is getting worse. Or maybe you’re just feeling run down and out of energy. Whatever your ailment, there’s a good chance that your doctor will recommend some sort of movement as part of your treatment—something like stretching, strengthening, or range of motion exercises. She might just want you to walk more. Or she might refer you to physical or occupational therapy.

Physical Therapy vs. Occupational Therapy

What’s the difference between the two? Physical therapists and occupational therapists are both trained in the field of kinesiology. They are experts in the physiological and biomechanical principles of movement. Basically, they understand how our muscles, ligaments, bones, and nervous system work together to help us move.

If it hurts to turn, twist, lift, or walk, there’s a good chance they can tell us why.

Physical therapists work with patients on rehabilitation after injury or surgery. They help patients strengthen muscles and improve range of motion. They develop treatment plans that promote movement, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. Treatment methods used by physical therapists can include prescribed exercises, stretches, massage, heat or cold therapy, hydrotherapy, and ultrasound.

Occupational therapy is a little different. Instead of working on treatments for rehabilitation, the focus of occupational therapists is to help their patients perform daily tasks that may be difficult because of disability, injury, or even cognitive issues. Occupational therapists sometimes use similar exercises and treatments as physical therapists, but the goal is to help patients do the things they want to do—whether it’s getting back to their full time jobs or simply getting dressed in the morning. Additionally, an occupational therapist will advise a patient on changes to their environment that could make certain tasks easier.

Training to be a Physical Therapist

Some older practicing physical therapists may have master’s degree in physical therapy, but current requirements are for all new physical therapists to complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. That means a bachelor’s degree plus three more years of school. Then they must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam for licensing.

Training to be an Occupational Therapist

Before becoming certified and licensed, an occupational therapist must complete a master’s degree at a minimum. Doctoral programs in occupational therapy are also available.

Specializations in Physical and Occupational Therapy

Physical therapists can specialize in a number of areas. Board certification is available for each of the following specialties:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopaedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s Health

Occupational therapy offers certifications in:

  • Gerontology
  • Mental Health
  • Pediatrics
  • Physical Rehabilitation
  • Driving and Community Mobility
  • Environmental Modification
  • Feeding, Eating, and Swallowing
  • Low Vision
  • School Systems