Say you’re looking for a medical professional to help rehabilitate you after you tore your rotator cuff during the homecoming game. Who would you call? A physical therapist? How about an occupational therapist?

The truth is, many people consider physical therapy and occupational therapy to be interchangeable. But if you’re interested in medicine, anatomy and exercise and you’re in the midst of narrowing down a field of post-graduate study, which one do you choose?  

Both occupational therapy and physical therapy are set to see faster than average growth over the next ten years, both are typically paired with healthy median salaries and they both require many of the same skills. In fact, patients will sometimes even see both a physical therapist and an occupational therapist, often meeting with one practitioner first before being referred to the other—so what’s the difference?    

Occupational therapy vs. physical therapy: 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.  

Occupational therapy vs. physical therapy: The right diagnosis for you

The roles of both occupational therapists and physical therapists are integral to restorative healthcare in today’s society. And while different from one another, the professionals in both fields work collaboratively to improve the quality of life for their patients. Both are equipped with bright outlooks in today’s job market and both work toward enabling patients to reach their full potential, so it all comes down to which field suits you better.  


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