Defining Physical Therapy vs Occupational Therapy

Therapy as a form of treatment can be traced back to 460BC when Hippocrates and Galenus used different techniques— including massage, manual therapy, and hydrotherapy—to treat patients. Today, there are four main types of therapy, grouped into physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, and applied behavioral analysis. 

To people who are less familiar with therapy options, the concepts of physical and occupational therapy can be confusing, especially because both have a physical aspect. Knowing the differences between these two distinct disciplines can help healthcare professionals and patients alike understand when each may be valuable to include in treatment planning.

What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapy (OT) is a client-centered health approach designed to improve a patient’s ability to perform daily activities which may have been hindered by mental, physical, developmental, or emotional illness. Occupational therapists assess a patient’s everyday life before developing practical solutions that enhance the patient’s occupational engagement.

For instance, an occupational therapist working with a hip replacement patient may identify the need for grab rails in the patient’s bathroom to help them get in and out of the bath safely.

Conditions OT Can Help With

The end goal of occupational therapy is to restore independence by helping patients learn or relearn how to engage in tasks, thus improving their quality of life. Occupational therapy can help individuals with many conditions, including:

  • Spinal cord or brain-related traumatic injuries
  • Congenital disabilities or injuries
  • Developmental disorders such as autism
  • Sensory processing disorders
  • Behavioral or mental health problems

Education and Training Requirements For Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists are professionals who undergo training to examine and evaluate conditions that may require OT. Generally, all states require occupational therapists to pass an exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) before becoming licensed. What’s more, individuals can only undertake the NBCOT exam after earning a degree in occupational therapy from an accredited institution.

What Is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy (PT) refers to the medical practice involving exercise that helps alleviate pain or tackle immobility due to an injury or illness. Physical therapists evaluate a patient’s movement and flexibility before giving a diagnosis/prognosis that will form the basis of a personalized plan of care. 

While PT in modern therapy mainly involves physical manipulation, it can also entail:

  • Iontophoresis: requires an electric current to deliver medications such as topical steroids, which in some cases help deal with inflammation. 
  • Electrical stimulation: (e-stim) uses an electrical current to stimulate a part of the body. E-stim can either be transcutaneous or neuromuscular — the former stimulates nerves to reduce pain while the latter stimulates muscular motor units.
  • Cold therapy: Physical therapists can also target a range of health conditions by using temperature, or moist heat. Additionally, some situations require PT to utilize lasers and special lights in what is referred to as light therapy.

Conditions PT Can Help With

Understanding what physical therapy involves, you might be wondering who is the ideal beneficiary of this type of treatment? Depending on the type of PT used, this treatment can offer relief to various medical conditions such as:

  • Alleviating symptoms associated with cardiovascular conditions, including obstructive pulmonary disease, post-myocardial infarction, heart failure, and cystic fibrosis.
  • Restoring normal functioning of the hands by correcting trigger finger and carpal tunnel syndrome. 
  • Providing relief against musculoskeletal dysfunction such as temporomandibular joint disorder, back pain, and rotator cuff tears. 
  • Remedying sports-related injuries such as concussions and knee ligament injuries.

Patients with neurological conditions ranging from spinal cord injuries, stroke, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, vestibular dysfunction, and Parkinson’s disease may also benefit from physical therapy. However, it’s worth noting that in some of the cases mentioned above, physical therapy may not directly or independently be used to treat the condition, but will work to optimize recovery and help patients relearn movement patterns.

Education and Training Requirements For Physical Therapists

Physical therapy is a state-licensed and regulated profession that requires one to undergo specialized training before qualifying as a physical therapist. Considering how intense and severe some of the conditions requiring physical therapy can be, it is no surprise that individuals must have a master’s degree or clinical doctorate from an accredited institution as well as pass an exam before obtaining a license to practice. However, with that in mind, employment is all but assured for students who wish for a career as a physical therapist, considering the U.S. will have a shortage of 27,000 PTs by the year 2025

What Are The Key Differences?

While it is common to confuse occupational therapy and physical therapy, these two forms of therapy have distinct differences that set them apart. The most obvious of these differences is that occupational therapy focuses on restoring the ability to perform daily activities whereas physical therapy is designed to help patients cope with pain, develop gross motor skills, and increase mobility. 

Other key differences include:

  • Occupational therapists can alter patients’ working environment to enable them to perform daily work more efficiently.
  • Physical therapists are movement specialists who prescribe exercises, offer hands-on care, and educate people on how their bodies work. 

It is important to note that occupational therapy and physical therapy are not mutually exclusive. The two can be combined to bring about a healthy recovery and restoration of quality of life. What’s more, they often overlap in terms of equipment and software used to streamline both forms of therapy. 

Raintree Systems | PT, OT, and More

Here at Raintree Systems, we are dedicated to providing the most powerful, flexible software platform for all therapy and rehab practices, including both occupational therapy and physical therapy. Our scalable, all-in-one EMR facilitates interoperable billing, comprehensive clinical documentation, interactive reporting, and automated patient engagement, all of which takes much of the workload off therapists’ so that they can focus on delivering excellent, efficient patient care. In addition to our practice management tools, Raintree’s Software-as-a-Relationship approach helps humanize healthcare experiences between providers, patients, and their support systems.