We get this question a lot — physical therapist vs. occupational therapist … what’s the difference?

Let’s break it down to help you understand how each of these specialists can help you.

What is a physical therapist?

The term “physical therapist” is an umbrella term for a wide range of specialists who help patients manage pain and improve movement, particularly after an illness or injury. Physical therapists (PTs) use a wide range of treatment techniques, from treating patients with manual therapy to walking them through strength-training exercises to recommending at-home treatments.

What is an occupational therapist?

Like physical therapists, occupational therapists (OTs) make movement easier for patients, but specifically movements involved in their day-to-day life. While the word “occupation” is in the job title, OTs don’t just deal with career-related movements — they help patients with all kinds of movements. For instance, if an aging patient has trouble dressing themselves, an OT can help them try to build the strength and flexibility to get dressed without help.

3 key differences between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist

PTs and OTs both help to improve patients’ lives, but there are some key differences. Here are some important points to consider in the physical therapist vs. occupational therapist conversation:

  1. Occupational therapists treat physical and mental conditions — OTs make it easier for patients to move around so they can handle daily tasks. If the patient struggles with psychological hurdles rather than physical ones, their OT will help the patient to overcome them, possibly without any physical therapy at all.
  1. Occupational therapists may change the environment instead of the patient’s body — Another important point in the physical therapist vs. occupational therapist conversation is that OTs don’t always treat the patient directly. Sometimes, they’ll make recommendations about how the patient’s caretakers can adjust their living space to make certain tasks easier. While physical therapists might recommend assistive tools like canes, walkers or orthopedic shoe inserts, they don’t typically make any recommendations regarding the patient’s living space.
  1. Physical therapists offer treatment for generalized chronic pain — Not all chronic pain prohibits you from performing daily tasks. Sometimes it just hurts and makes life a little harder.An occupational therapist is unlikely to see you for chronic pain if it doesn’t affect your ability to live independently, but a physical therapist will.

Looking for physical therapy or occupational therapy? Not sure which you need? Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.