People of all ages with a wide range of health conditions need care from an expert therapist, but finding the right provider can sometimes be confusing. Although therapies may share some naming conventions or have similar end goals, there are four primary therapy specialties that are most frequently employed to help people living with disabilities, injuries and illnesses: physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech/language and applied behavioral analysis.

Which Is Which?

Before delving into the four primary therapy specialties, a quick point of clarity is in order. Some use the terms “therapy” and “rehab” or “rehabilitation” interchangeably, but these two words have different meanings. “Therapy ” involves the restoring of function, allowing a person to regain independence in a safe, effective way. It helps with fundamental strength, fitness, or mobility issues, while rehabilitation is the process that helps a person who is recovering from a more serious injury. 

Physical Therapy

The primary goal of physical therapy (PT)  is to restore mobility and function while minimizing or eliminating pain. Regardless of the severity of an individual’s injuries, degree of mobility or functionality loss, physical therapy aims to alleviate each patient’s pain and help them regain activity. 

Some of the common problems frequently evaluated and treated by physical therapists include:

  • Stroke
  • Arthritis
  • Fractures
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Sports injuries
  • Amputations

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) focuses on enabling people to do the things they enjoy and need to do in order to properly function, such as everyday tasks like brushing your teeth, walking up stairs or driving a car. All of these exercises and more strive to improve their quality of life by helping them carry out their normal daily activities.    

Some common examples of situations where OT can help include:    

  • Fostering engagement for disabled children in school and home activities
  • Helping people with disabilities participate in social events, hobbies, or sports
  • Assisting people who are experiencing changes in the way they think or remember things
  • Guiding people with injuries in recovering their routines 

Physical Therapy vs. Occupational Therapy

So, what’s the difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy? While the two professional disciplines do have some similar traits, they are indeed different types of therapy

  • OT focuses on improving the ability to perform tasks needed for everyday life.
  • PT focuses on helping improve a person’s ability to move.
  • Occupational therapists may recommend specialized equipment or suggest different ways to accomplish tasks of daily living.    
  • Physical therapists are experts in movement and work with people to improve mobility. 
  • Physical therapists prescribe specific exercises, provide hands-on care and educate people on the workings of their bodies.     
  • Both occupational and physical therapists develop individualized plans of care to meet patients’ specific needs. 

Speech-Language Therapy

The goal of speech-language therapy is to improve an individual’s ability to communicate and/or swallow. Under the guidance of a speech-language pathologist (SLP.), individuals can work on different aspects of communication, including production of speech, stuttering or fluency, cognition, language, hearing, voice and resonance. If patients have identified swallowing difficulties, SLPs can provide support to assist with feeding issues. 

While speech-language therapy is frequently used to treat pediatric patients, it is just as likely to be included in a plan of care for an adult. Similar to physical and occupational therapists, SLPs work with individuals as well as their families to realize goals identified based on the client’s unique situation. 

Applied Behavioral Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that focuses on studying human behavior. While ABA is often applied in special education and in the treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ABA can be an element of healthcare plans for those with other developmental conditions. 

ABA is a method of treatment for those in need of adaptive learning skills, such as grooming, punctuality, social skills, fine motor dexterity, general hygiene, domestic capabilities and job competence. In addition, ABA can help aging adults accept the life changes that come with age including loss of loved ones, declining memory, depreciating strength and changing relationships. ABA also helps individuals manage some of the lifestyle struggles that go hand-in-hand with many physical and mental health conditions such as anxiety, dementia or other behavioral health illnesses.                                                                                                                                                                             

SLP and ABA: Similar Yet Different                                                                           

ABA and speech-language therapy are similar in that they can focus on treating speech and language difficulties. Moreover, these modalities share similar goals, such as helping people develop successful communication skills outside of the therapy setting and improving autonomy. 

However, ABA and SLP differ in some fundamental ways. For example, ABA uses strict behavioral techniques to enhance the desired behavior, while speech-language therapy may take a more eclectic approach to a similar problem. SLP may target specific language and communication skills, while ABA therapy can also help develop behavioral, learning or motor skills. 

Regardless of the type of assistance you or a family member may need, start your search for the ideal therapist with your primary care provider. For many patients, working with a physical or occupational therapist, SLP, or ABA expert can be a life-transforming experience that has a meaningful impact on quality of life.