When you’re injured, it can be difficult to understand all the different specializations each professional has that can work with you. There’s often a lot of physical and mental pain you’ll endure throughout rehabilitation, and it involves a variety of techniques, skills, and lifestyle changes to fully adapt and recover.

Two terms you’ll come across on the road to recovery are occupational therapy and physical therapy. Each profession helps cope with injury, but they go about it in many different ways because of their unique specialization.

Here’s what you need to know about occupational therapy vs physical therapy.

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy

A common question among individuals new to the rehabilitation world is when to use an OT versus when to utilize a PT. This is a great question, but the answer is nuanced. One way that helped me understand the difference is not to think of them as completely different solutions to a problem, but rather as two different individuals looking at the same problem and solving it through their lens.

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Physical therapists (PTs) help people manage pain and improve basic movement and motor skills when sick or injured. They focus on preventative care but also treat and rehabilitate people with chronic injuries or illnesses. The job often involves being on your feet and moving patients, which means PTs are at risk of being injured themselves.

You’ll commonly find PTs working in athletic facilities to help athletes maintain peak physical condition on and off the field. Professional athletes have one of the highest incidence rates of injury among all occupations, according to the CDC, and this injury rate can affect children competing in sports too.

Your physical therapist should examine you to develop a treatment plan that helps achieve your goals. They can work with people from newborns to the elderly who have injuries, disabilities, or other health concerns that could limit motor function, cause pain, or cause loss of function.

As explained by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), physical therapists help people live healthy and active lives.

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

While a PT focuses on basic motor skills, an occupational therapist (OT) helps you adapt your everyday life to your condition. Whether you have birth defects, traumatic injuries, developmental disorders, or any other psychosocial issues an individual may have. An OT helps you work through your ailments to improve your overall quality of life. Occupational therapy empowers you with the skills to fully participate in school, in sports, on the job, or anywhere you need to succeed in the path you’ve chosen in life.

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), occupations are the activities people need or want to do at any age. That can include work, school, sports, church, or even household chores, dressing, cooking, and driving.

The specific path and outcomes are defined by your goals, home, and other environments. A personalized evaluation of you and your family helps determine the roadmap and intervention plan that helps you achieve what you set out to do. You deserve a comfortable life no matter what you’re going through, and OTs can get you there both physically and psychologically.

Like physical therapy, children can also benefit from occupational therapy to master basic skills like bathing, brushing their teeth, and even social skills like managing frustration. Of course, even adults can struggle with these things after an injury or illness, even just from getting older as we head into our golden years.

That’s why using both an OT and PT is typically recommended whenever such a health concern occurs.


A Holistic Approach to Recovery

Regardless of what part of the body you hurt, it can affect your entire body. I know this from personally suffering from a torn ACL while playing football. Not only did I need to relearn how to walk without that ligament supporting me, but I also got sidelined in my dream career and had to find a new direction in my life.

It takes more than just corrective surgery. Some conditions are chronic and will occur our whole lives, but that doesn’t mean you have to let them derail you. No matter what your condition or occupation, there are three steps to form the foundation of a holistic rehabilitation approach.

1. Set Goals

Goal setting is the first step any successful person takes. You need a variety of short-term and long-term goals to motivate you through recovery on the front end and provide a record of your progress to look back on. This quantifies what you’re doing to make everything less frustrating.

If you weren’t born with the condition, you may also need to set different goals that accommodate your current abilities. From relearning to walking to daily eating all the way through retirement, have solid and achievable goals to build healthy habits from and work towards.

2. Specialized Exercise

Physical activity is what helps us control our health, boost energy, and prevent many diseases. A regular workout routine is so vital that the government has multiple guides on how both children and adults can stay physically fit.

However, when you’re not in peak physical condition, you need to be mindful of only doing low-impact activities that won’t reinjure you or push you beyond your healthy limits. Specialized workout equipment like PowerPlate can help you get a full-body workout with minimal space.

3. Focus on Mental Health

We often focus on physical recovery but spend little time focusing on the mental health aspect. My ACL tear came with trauma that evolved into PTSD over time. It wasn’t just my knee that was injured; I needed to reinvent myself after losing the one thing I felt defined me, leading to the injury.

Be sure to practice mindfulness, and don’t be afraid to reach out to a therapist using services like BetterHelp. This can help you talk through and process fears, anxiety, and depression you may be facing related to your physical health.

Just know that you’re never alone, and some people understand how frustrating things can be. With the help of a PT and OT, you can maintain a better quality of life. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or concerns.

About the Author

Hi there! I’m Dr. Keagen Hadley, OTD, OTR/L. Straight out of the University of Mary, I’m all about blending my know-how in knee health, well-being, and medical technology. As a licensed occupational therapy doc, I’m here to translate complex concepts into clear, actionable insights – whether it’s knee care or groundbreaking healthcare tech.

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