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What is the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

Occupational therapy and physical therapy are often confused because both are methods of treating disease, injury or disability that do not involve medication. What do physical therapists do? They help improve patients' quality of life by prescribing certain exercises and providing hands-on care and patient education. For each patient, a physical therapist develops a treatment plan that helps them prevent injuries or manage their conditions, helping them to move better, reduce pain and restore function.  What do occupational therapists do? They help people improve their ability to accomplish daily activities through exercises, environmental changes, and customized interventions. With each patient, an occupational therapist provides an evaluation to determine goals, then develops an intervention plan to help the person improve their ability to perform daily activities and meet their goals. 

In general, a physical therapy definition is more focused on treating illnesses or injuries that restrict movement, while an occupational therapy definition is more focused on improving daily living skills. Here’s a look at the main differences in their work.

Physical Therapy

  • Diagnoses problems that restrict movement because of illness or injury
  • Uses exercises and other techniques to ease pain, boost mobility and strength
  • Develops fitness or wellness programs to help prevent injuries and encourage a more active lifestyle

Occupational Therapy

  • Help patients improve daily living skills and self-care tasks
  • Supports patients with memory loss or cognitive challenges
  • Recommends adaptive equipment that may improve daily living

Education and Salaries

The physical therapy degree requirements are slightly more stringent than the occupational therapy degree requirements. Both fields require practitioners to earn a bachelor’s degree, usually in a health-related field with courses including anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and physiology. And both fields require graduate degrees—but physical therapy requires a doctoral degree, while occupational therapy only requires a master’s degree. 

To become a physical therapist, you must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, which takes about three years. This is a new requirement as of 2016, so some older physical therapists practice with a master’s degree. 

To become an occupational therapist, you can earn a master’s degree or a doctoral degree. Earning a master’s degree in occupational therapy usually takes two years. Some universities offer a five-year combined program that includes both the bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. 

All states require physical therapists and occupational therapists to be licensed. Physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. To become licensed, occupational therapists must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy exam. 

In addition to passing the national exam, various states have other requirements for licensing. Those requirements may include a criminal background check and an exam covering legal issues related to therapy. 

The median salary for a physical therapist is $85,000, and varies based on experience, position, type of practice and geographic location, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. The median salary for an occupational therapist is close behind, at $83,200, according to US News. Some of the best places to earn a solid salary as an occupational therapist are included on this list of best cities for OTs

Abbreviations

In physical therapy, abbreviations are very common. Physical therapists are almost always referred to as PTs. Some of the most frequent abbreviations they use in their work include: 

  • AAROM – Active Assistive Range of Motion
  • AD – Assistive Device
  • ADL – Activities of Daily Living
  • AKA – Above Knee Amputation
  • Amb – Ambulation
  • AROM – Active Range Of Motion
  • BID – Twice a day
  • I – Independent
  • LE – Lower extremity
  • MMT – Manual muscle test
  • QD – Every day
  • QID – Four times a day
  • RC – Rotator cuff
  • TID – Three times a day
  • UE – Upper Extremity
  • WBAT – Weight bearing as tolerated
  • WC – Wheelchair
  • WFL – Within functional limit
  • WNL – Within normal limits

Occupational therapy abbreviations are also common and overlap with many of the abbreviations used in PT. Occupational therapists usually referred to as OTs, also frequently use these abbreviations:

  • ADLs – Activities of daily living
  • IADLs – Instrumental activities of daily living
  • LTG – Long term goal
  • STG – Short term goal

Career Paths

The physical therapy career path is similar to the occupational therapy career path, but the actual tasks of the jobs vary widely. In general, occupational therapists focus on helping patients master the activities of daily living. Physical therapists, on the other hand, focus on helping patients recover their range of motion and decrease pain after an injury or illness.

When determining how to choose between occupational therapy and physical therapy, think about how much time you’re willing to spend pursuing a degree and the types of patients you would prefer to work with. Both physical therapy jobs and occupational therapy jobs are widely available, and both offer opportunities to help people live better, more fulfilled lives.


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