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Chris Ostrander

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy: What's the difference?

If rehabilitative medicine is a field you've been looking into as a potential career option, you have likely run across a lot of information that mentions physical therapy and occupational therapy side-by-side. This tends to lend the impression that the two terms are interchangeable – which is a very common misconception. While these two types of therapy are closely related and there are similarities, they are distinctly different disciplines that each play their own vital role in patient rehabilitation. Here we'll outline the differences between the two.

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy: Differences in Primary Focus

Physical therapy is focused primarily on the physical rehabilitation of individuals recovering from injuries or debilitating disease or other health events/conditions. The primary goals of treatment are the restoration, maintenance and promotion of optimal physical function, including strength, functional capacity, mobility and balance. Physical therapists and physical therapy assistants may also educate patients in proper posture, body mechanics and other principles of movement with the goal of helping them learn how to prevent injuries and improve physical function.

Occupational therapy also addresses debilitating issues in individuals caused by injuries, debilitating diseases or health conditions, but with a different primary focus. While there is some emphasis on improving overall physical function, the main goal of treatment is more narrowly targeted on the practical aspects of helping people do the things they want and need to do in their daily lives. Occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants may, depending upon the individual needs of the patient, focus on improving physical function and work/life management skills, as well as helping individuals learn to use assistive technology to improve levels of function and independence in their daily activities.

Those Differences In Action

These differences in primary treatment focus result in variations in the duties of physical therapy and occupational therapy professionals. For example, a patient who has had knee surgery will generally receive treatment from both physical and occupational therapists during recovery and rehabilitation. Physical therapy professionals would devise a treatment plan using exercise and other methods to ease pain and stiffness in the knee and improve its mobility – focusing on the injury itself. Occupational therapy professionals, on the other hand, would work to help that patient learn how to manage daily tasks during recovery, such as getting around with a wheelchair or walker in the early stages, and as recovery progresses, how to navigate stairs with crutches or a cane.

So there's the basic breakdown of how these two professions differ, which should help you decide which of these areas of rehabilitative medicine might be the best career option for you. Both are in high demand in today's healthcare market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of occupational therapists is expected to grow 27 percent from 2014 to 2024, and employment of physical therapists by 34 percent , both of those growth rates being much faster than the average for all occupations.

So where to start in building your career? An associate's degree program to become a physical therapy assistant or occupational therapy assistant is a great first step towards establishing yourself in these fields. Once you have your foot in the door, continuing your education to become a full-fledged therapist is your path to career advancement.

For more informational on occupational and physical therapy courses at Bryant and Stratton College, contact the Admissions Office.

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