Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy? What's The Difference And Which Is Right For You?

by Sam Boone
Originally Published: 
Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy
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From making meals and running errands to taking a yoga class and playing with kids, it’s easy to realize how much our bodies do for us. But a constant on-the-go schedule and busy morning routines can cause an injury and bring all those activities dead in their tracks. When that happens, physical or occupational therapy can help a person get back to living more independently and doing what they enjoy. So what is the difference between occupational therapy vs. physical therapy, and what kind of training and education does someone need to pursue a career in patient therapy? Here’s a primer.

Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy

Both occupational and physical therapy focus on hands-on rehabilitation and have overlapping responsibilities. In fact, a person might work with both an occupational therapist (OT) and a physical therapist (PT) during recovery from an injury, illness, or developmental disability.

  • Both review medical histories and referrals from other healthcare workers.
  • Both educate people on how to prevent and avoid injuries.
  • Both possess a great deal of knowledge on physiology and the healing process.
  • Both help people improve their ability to perform daily functions.
  • Both develop individualized patient treatment plans with anticipated goals and outcomes.
  • Both evaluate and record patient progress and modify the care plan as needed.

However, the roles vary when comparing occupational therapy vs. physical therapy.

What an Occupational Therapist Does

Occupational therapy focuses on improving a patient’s ability to perform activities of daily living (ADL) making the scope of practice quite large. This treatment helps patients relearn how to go up and down stairs, brush teeth, shower, get dressed, and do other day-to-day tasks. Think of an OT as a functional support system. This type of therapy is designed to help patients regain independence and care for themselves.

Patients who have had joint replacement surgeries or those who have developmental or cognitive disabilities such as cerebral palsy will often visit a licensed OT.

The OT approach includes wellness promotion, rehabilitation, and habilitation (the process aimed to help disabled individuals improve daily skills and functioning). The Bureau of Labor Statistics mentions the following duties:

  • Help people with various disabilities perform different tasks, such as teaching a stroke victim how to get dressed
  • Demonstrate exercises — for example, stretching the joints for arthritis relief — that can help relieve pain in people with chronic conditions
  • Evaluate a patient’s home or workplace and, on the basis of the patient’s health needs, identify potential improvements, such as labeling kitchen cabinets for an older person with poor memory
  • Recommend special equipment, such as wheelchairs and eating aids, and instruct patients on how to use that equipment

While a majority of OTs work in medical and surgical hospital settings, they also work in outpatient clinics, home health agencies, nursing homes, community centers, school districts, government agencies, and private practice.

Patient and creative people make great OTs as they often work with individuals who need ongoing encouragement and support.

What a Physical Therapist Does

PTs are like a mechanic for the human body. Physical therapy treatment improves a patient’s ability to move their body and focuses on mobility, strength, and balance. While OTs focus on necessary daily activities like feeding and bathing, physical therapy stretches and exercises are designed to reduce pain and improve overall physical function. A licensed PT can assess pain and symptoms and can formulate a personalized treatment plan for each individual patient.

PTs are often needed after an injury or illness incapacitates a person. If you hear someone who recently had knee surgery after a football injury talking about going to “rehab,” they most likely will be working with a PT.

They will work hard to prevent further injury and help you avoid surgery or long-term reliance on medication. The Bureau of Labor Statistics mentions some of the following duties:

  • Use exercises, stretching maneuvers, hands-on therapy, and equipment to ease patients’ pain, help them increase their mobility, prevent further pain or injury, and facilitate health and wellness

If you are interested in how the human body moves and works and how you improve those movements, then you might make a great PT!

How to Become an Occupational Therapist or Physical Therapist

Pursuing a career in patient therapy will take a ton of time and dedication. With that said, it’s a highly stable career and is a great place to land for people who love helping others.

To become a PT or OT:

  • You need both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from an accredited university.
  • Aspiring OTs need to pass the NBCOT exam while aspiring PTs will look to pass the NPTE exam.
  • Once you pass your exam, you apply for licensure in your state.

Expect to spend six to seven years in school to become an OT and seven years to become a PT.

OT vs PT Salary

Even if you’re following a passion to help people, you still need to earn a living. Thankfully, both professions are incredibly lucrative. Keep in mind that these salaries range based on experience, location, and the company. (You are certainly in luck if you live in Massachusetts for either career path. Not so much if you live in Florida.) Here are the average salaries for both positions.

  • Occupational therapy national average salary: $89,280
  • Highest paying states: Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey
  • Lowest paying states: North Carolina, Florida, Alabama
  • Job outlook over next 10 years according to Bureau of Labor Statistics: 16%
  • Physical therapy national average salary: $91,010
  • Highest paying states: Massachusetts, Alaska, Nevada
  • Lowest paying states: Mississippi, Florida, New Mexico
  • Job outlook over next 10 years according to Bureau of Labor Statistics: 18%

If you’re still unclear about the differences between occupational therapy vs. physical therapy, that’s OK! You can learn more by shadowing and volunteering with therapists in both fields.

Occupational Therapy Activities

These activities are especially great for helping young children develop the physical skills they need.

  • Place your child in a swing and put a few colorful containers around them. Then give them a few small balls and task them with tossing each ball into a container. This helps with their coordination and body awareness.
  • Make some playdough. Not only is it fun to play with, but it also boosts your child’s occupational skills to make it. After combining the salt, flour, water, and food coloring, it must be kneaded until smooth. This is great for improving vision and texture exploration skills.


Can you be an OT and PT?

Both occupational and physical therapists help patients heal through training. Although the roles are similar, they sometimes overlap. Patients may get treated by both kinds of therapists. They may start with a physical therapist and then transition to an occupational one.

Do I need PT or OT?

It’s really up to your doctor to decide what kind of therapy you need. But to give you an idea, here are two lists of several injuries that are usually treated by an occupational or physical therapist.

Physical Therapist

  • Carpal tunnel
  • Elbow fracture
  • Shoulder bursitis
  • Shoulder tendonitis
  • Tennis elbow
  • Stroke
  • Shoulder tendonitis

Occupational Therapist

  • Finger or hand tendon tears
  • Shoulder pain caused by arthritis or a fracture

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