Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy

Occupational therapy and physical therapy share many similarities and can even be complementary. Still, they are distinct forms of therapy, each with a unique definition and purpose:

  • Physical therapy seeks to correct a patient’s actual physical impairment
  • Occupational therapy seeks to teach specific actions and activities resulting from an impairment

While the word physical means “pertaining to the body,” the word occupational refers to “an activity in which a person is engaged.”

Physical therapy involves the physical rehabilitation of the body. Therefore, the goal of physical therapy is to improve physical impairments through actions designed to increase mobility and decrease pain.

Occupational therapy, on the other hand, applies tools and techniques to improve a patient’s ability to complete everyday tasks due to the impairment.

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Where Occupational and Physical Therapy Overlap

However, OT and PT do have a few things in common, which explains why there is sometimes some confusion in the role and application of each. Occupational therapy and physical therapy are both restorative in nature, helping to improve the quality of life for patients with injuries, illnesses, or disabilities. They are also part of a comprehensive plan of care designed to help patients reach their full potential and improve their quality of life.

Both OTs and PTs create individualized patient plans based on disabilities resulting from diseases, disorders, conditions, or physical injuries. They work with patients across the lifespan with any number of issues, including:

  • Children with developmental disabilities
  • Patients recovering from an injury or illness
  • Older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes

Both physical therapists and occupational therapists are qualified to instruct and guide patients through exercises, and recommend medical and assistive devices, like braces, walkers, canes, and wheelchairs.

They also work in clinics, patients’ homes, schools, rehab facilities, hospitals, nursing homes, and other settings, and both train caregivers to provide ongoing therapy and assistance.

Because the realms of physical and occupational therapy often intersect, their goals and objectives are often misunderstood. However, the purpose of these two therapies is quite different.

Breaking it Down: The Purpose of Physical and Occupational Therapy

It is quite common for physical and occupational therapists to work alongside one another to aid in a patient’s recovery. However, their goals are what distinguishes them from one another.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists and their assistants focus on treating issues that results from a disability instead of the source of the disability itself. Therefore, their focus in on providing treatment that helps patients achieve their activities of daily living (ADLs), such as dressing, cooking, writing, using the bathroom, etc.

The overreaching goal of occupational therapy is to help patients reach their fullest potential despite their disabilities.

Occupational therapy uses a holistic approach to consider not only why a patient’s ADLs are impacted but also the role the environment plays in their habilitation and rehabilitation. It also addresses the physical, cognitive, psychosocial, and sensory aspects of recovery.

The occupational therapist performs an individualized evaluation to determine the patient’s goals and then develops a customized intervention plan with specific therapeutic exercises to help the patient perform and improve daily activities and reach specific goals or milestones. The occupational therapist also performs periodic evaluations to ensure that goals are being met and makes changes to the intervention plan, as necessary.

Occupational therapists may conduct evaluations at the client’s home, the workplace, or in school and make recommendations for adaptive equipment. They also guide and educate family members and caregivers.

Depending on the patient, occupational therapists and occupational therapist assistants may focus on improving:

  • Fine motor skills (using scissors, holding a pencil)
  • Gross motor skills (walking, climbing the stairs)
  • Cognitive skills
  • Self-care (Using a spoon, brushing teeth, etc.)
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Planning and organization

They may also help patients use special equipment or assistive technology.

In a school setting, occupational therapists and their assistants help students attain the goals outlined in their Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Physical Therapy

Physical therapists test and measure a patient’s functional capacity, motor development, and strength. They treat patients of all ages with medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their ability to move and perform functional activities. They also teach patients how to prevent or manage their condition and prevent disability to lead healthier and more active lifestyles.

Physical therapy is provided by either physical therapists or physical therapist assistants working under the supervision of physical therapists. The goal of physical therapy is to reduce pain and improve or restore function and mobility.

Physical therapists examine and diagnose patients, create and implement a plan of care, and adjust the plan of care as necessary. Physical therapy programs are plans of care that include short- and long-term functional goals and interventions that include:

  • Exercise
  • Mobilization/manual therapy
  • Ultrasound, electrotherapy
  • Traction
  • Vestibular training
  • Motor learning and development
  • Patient and family education

Examinations performed by physical therapists include testing one or more of the following:

  • Muscle function
  • Strength
  • Joint flexibility
  • Range of motion
  • Balance and coordination
  • Posture
  • Respiration
  • Motor function
  • Skin integrity
  • Activities of daily living

Similar Paths to Careers in OT and PT Assisting

Both physical therapist assistants and occupational therapist assistants hold a minimum of an associate’s degree from an accredited program:

Both occupational and physical therapist assistant programs involve classroom and clinical experiences. Depending on state requirements, clinical practicums last between two and four months.

Upon graduation, candidates for physical therapist assistant and occupational therapist assistant state licensure must take and pass a national examination:

  • Occupational therapist assistant candidates must take and pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy exam
  • Physical therapist assistant candidates must take and pass the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy’s National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE)

Many states also require candidates to take and pass a state jurisprudence examination as a condition of licensure.

Comparing Practice Focused Clinical Doctorates for OTs and PTs

Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD): Although licensing requirements vary from one state to the next, all require occupational therapists to hold a minimum of a master’s degree through a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). Many master’s programs are designed as bridge programs, which allow occupational therapist assistants to complete both their bachelor’s and master’s degree requirements through one program. These programs require a current and unrestricted occupational therapist assistant license and some experience working as an OTA as a condition of admission.

Along with classroom learning, students must complete extensive fieldwork in their graduate program and then pass the National Board of Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam to qualify for state licensure as an occupational therapist.

The ACOTE also accredits both entry-level and post-professional doctorate programs in occupational therapy. It seems doctorates aren’t just for professors and researchers anymore, and pursuing a practice-focused post-professional doctoral degree in occupational therapy has become more common among clinical practitioners in recent years.

The Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD) allows existing practitioners to develop advanced skills and knowledge beyond a generalist. In addition to concentrating on a specific area of occupational therapy (pediatrics, upper quadrant, etc.), these programs provide advanced study and training in areas of administration, leadership, program and policy development, advocacy and education.

The post-professional OTD is designed specifically for practicing occupational therapists with some experience in the profession who want to pursue leadership and administrative positions. They often feature flexible scheduling and online study opportunities to accommodate busy professionals.

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT): The minimum educational requirement to become a physical therapist is a doctoral degree accredited by The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). While licensing requirements vary by state, all states require physical therapists to hold a doctorate degree.

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs are about 3 years in length and include both classroom study and clinical training. These programs culminate in a final clinical experience of about 6 months.

Similar to many entry-level occupational therapy doctorate degrees, some DPT programs are designed as bridge programs that include both undergraduate and graduate work to accommodate licensed and practicing physical therapist assistants. These programs follow a 3+3 curriculum: 3 years completing undergraduate requirements and 3 years completing doctorate requirements.

Upon graduation, candidates for a physical therapist state license must take and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination to qualify for state licensure.

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