CHHS Student Success Center

Physical Therapist and Occupational Therapist: What's the Difference?

The basics

The word occupation, while most commonly used in reference to a person's vocational path, means "an activity in which a person is engaged." The word physical, on the other hand, means "of or pertaining to the body." The definitions themselves serve as precursors to the inherent differences between occupational therapy and physical therapy.  

Physical therapy is, in fact, what most people think it is: the physical rehabilitation of people recovering from injuries or disease. The goal is to help patients restore mobility. This can minimize the need for expensive surgeries or long-term reliance on medications. Physical therapists also teach patients how to prevent or manage their condition so that they can attain long-term health benefits.  

Occupational therapy also considers the physical aspects of rehabilitation and motion, but it is focused primarily on enabling the patient to engage in the meaningful activities of daily life as seamlessly as possible. These healthcare professionals are dedicated to assisting patients in the long-term through therapeutic adaptations and modifications to their environments.  

Some examples include assisting children with disabilities in participating fully in school or other social situations, helping patients regain skills after recovering from an injury and providing physical and environmental support for older adults experiencing bodily and cognitive changes.  

Job duties & skills

Both occupational therapy and physical therapy often require many of the same skills—in fact, several methods of physical therapy are used as a part of the occupational therapy practices and vice versa. The inherent differences are much clearer when analyzing the job duties of both professions.  

Physical therapists focus primarily on anatomical injuries, the bulk of their work residing in the preparation and implementation of individualized patient plans, according to APTA. They test and measure a patient's strength, functional capacity and motor development; and they work to improve mobility in each category. They also work in injury prevention and craft post-therapy treatment plans if necessary.  

Physical therapists demonstrate specialized competence in a number of areas including the development of new principles and applications to meet emerging health needs, as well as extensive healthcare research, education, consultation and administrative tasks.  

Occupational therapists do focus on some of the same physical aspects of the therapy process, but more than just a knowledge base of anatomical health, a comprehensive understanding of mental health is also crucial to this profession, according to AOTA. Not only do they evaluate a patient's physical capabilities, but they design activities and exercises that will help patients learn work and life management skills within their limits. These healthcare professionals use assistive technology with a wide variety of clients to promote function and independence in daily activities.  

Both occupational therapists and physical therapists will often venture outside their clinics to visit patient homes and offices to assess and recommend environmental changes, but also to train the caregivers who will be associated most directly with the patients once therapy concludes. Other non-clinical settings for both occupational and physical therapists include public schools and business sites preventing work-related injuries through the application of proper ergonomics.