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What’s the Difference between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy?

Higher Education Articles August 18, 2013

Similarities between physical therapy and occupational therapy lead many to think they are essentially interchangeable treatment methods. Another misconception is that professional certified therapists require RN supervision. The truth is that while some modalities are appropriate for both programs, the overall focus and outcome goals are indeed different.

Therapy Objectives Physical Therapy (PT)

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the role of physiologists is to diagnose and manage issues that inhibit optimum physical function and performance. In additional, therapy programs are designed to prevent injuries and illness, as well as control the progression of illness that might interfere with normal functionality. To achieve these goals, treatment focuses on educating patients about overall health and wellness, assisting with exercises, providing treatments that may include ultrasound or other electronic stimulation and a variety of other services.

The main focus of physical therapy is to treat or prevent injury and illness that limits functional abilities for normal daily life.

Occupational Therapy (OT)

While occupational therapists are also concerned about the overall function and abilities of their patients, their main focus in on creating a person-environment fit that improves mobility and function. These professionals are more likely to incorporate assistive equipment like walkers, prosthetic devices and braces in the overall treatment plan to change the environment and accommodate physical limitations.

Simply stated, physical therapists provide treatment and education to patients to help them recover from injury or illness, so they can return to normal function levels for daily life. Occupational therapists help patients adjust their environment to accommodate physical mobility challenges and help them manage their independence.

PT versus OT Treatment

Patients with severe lower limb injuries may receive PT treatments that include muscle stimulation through acupuncture, massage therapy and strength training to restore the function of a patient’s leg to pre-injury capabilities. OC plans would be initiated to provide muscle strengthen and retraining exercises that support walking with an artificial limb. The outcome of successfully walking is the same, while the goal and focus are vastly different.

Treatment Settings

Occupational therapists are more likely to visit a patient’s work and home to explore adaptation possibilities to increase or improve activities of daily living (ADL). Physical therapists are more likely to diagnosis and treat the physical (bodily) source of the limitation.

Occupational therapy is more prevalent in mental health settings and research facilities. Physical therapy is more often seen in sport rehabilitation centers and training facilities. Both OT and PT professionals work in a variety of settings including those listed below:

•School campuses
•Outpatient treatment facilities
•Industrial health centers
•Private, Corporate and Community health centers and clinics
•Post-surgical rehabilitation facilities
•Skilled nursing homes
•Assisted living communities
•Pediatric centers

Training, Education and Collaboration

Formal education leading to therapist certification involves rigorous curriculum with extensive focus on the muscular-skeletal system and anatomy. Some experts suggest that this training prepares the therapists to diagnosis and treat injuries more thoroughly and a general practice physician.

RN supervision is not necessary because certification and state licensing are required to practice as either an occupational therapy provider or a physical therapist. Nurses and therapists often have collaborative roles to provide patient care, especially in an in-patient setting.

Working as a Therapist: Pay and Jobs Outlook

According to APTA, three quarters of a million people are served every day by physical therapists. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the median annual salary for an occupational therapist as $72,320. The anticipated job growth is much higher than the average at thirty-three percent. Depending on the setting, annual earnings could exceed $100,000.

The job outlook for physical therapists is even more promising with a current median wage of $76,310 and a thirty-nine percent growth rate. The difference in salary may be attributed to the requirement for many physical therapists to hold a doctorate, while occupational therapists are generally expected to hold a master’s degree, according to the BLS Occupational Handbook.

Both professional groups serve clients across the lifespan from birth to the eldest among us. Both professions strive to encourage overall health and wellness with full mobility. The main difference is that PT focuses more on treating physical causes and OT focuses more on accommodation and environment.

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