Physical Therapy vs. Occupational Therapy: Comparing Healthcare Fields

 illustration of physical therapist assistant with question marks surrounding her 

There’s a good chance you’re familiar with either physical therapy or occupational therapy. Maybe you’ve been a patient of a physical therapist or occupational therapist before but you’re not quite sure what the other does. You’re curious—what’s the difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy? What treatments do they use? What conditions do they treat?

You’re not alone in wondering. These seemingly similar fields have a fair amount in common, but there’s also plenty that makes them distinct once you dive into the details. In this article we’ll do just that! Read on for a clearer picture of these two helpful healthcare fields.

Physical therapy vs. occupational therapy: the basics

Both physical therapy and occupational therapy can help people recover from injuries or deal with chronic health conditions. Like doctors, nurses and pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists are key players on a healthcare team. Both educate patients on their injuries, the healing process, and help them improve their ability to perform regular activities and reduce pain.

The main difference lies in their specific focuses on the parts of the body. Physical therapy primarily focuses on the structural aspects of a patient’s pain. Patients work to improve their range of motion and endurance to reduce pain and improve function. Occupational therapy focuses on a patient’s cognitive and fine motor skills in order to help them perform daily tasks or “occupations” in a healthy way.

Still a little fuzzy on the distinction between the two? It’s hard to fully understand these disciplines in just a simple definition. Let’s dive deeper into the treatments, conditions and professionals associated with each field.

What is physical therapy?

Physical therapy is for patients who have sustained injuries or are dealing with chronic conditions that cause them pain or limit their daily movement. Physical therapy has been shown to help some patients avoid surgery and prevent long-term reliance on medications. 

A huge variety of patients can benefit from physical therapy including current or former acute care patients recovering from fractures, surgeries, amputations or transplants. Patients with chronic conditions may also see a physical therapist for an extended period of time.

Physical therapy treatments can vary nearly as widely as the conditions treated. Here are some of the most common—

  • Manual therapy: includes massage, mobilization, and strengthening exercises
  • Exercise: addresses muscular imbalances
  • Hot and cold therapy: cold lessens inflammation while heat can reduce tightness
  • Ultrasound: promotes circulation and generates heat in connective tissues
  • Traction: alleviates pressure on the spine to decompress it
  • Laser therapy: generates wavelengths to stimulate healing
  • Electrical stimulation: contracts dormant muscles to restore function

The right treatment for each patient is unique to their diagnosis and their current condition. Having undergone many years of education and training, physical therapists are experts in finding the right treatment for their patients. Let’s learn more about physical therapists and the physical therapist assistants—their capabilities and where you can find them.

The role of physical therapists

Physical therapists (PTs) are movement experts who excel a finding the source of pain and creating treatment plans that will help patients reach their goals. Physical therapists have extensive training and practice in diagnosing and administering treatment. Physical therapists must have a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree and be licensed in their state.

You can find PTs in a variety of healthcare settings—hospitals, emergency rooms, private practices, outpatient clinics, patients’ homes, schools, sports and fitness centers, work settings and nursing homes. Most PTs work regular daytime business hours though some might work evening and weekend hours to accommodate patient schedules.

Physical therapists made an annual medial salary of $87,930 in 2018, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 Like many jobs in the healthcare industry, employment of physical therapists is projected to grow—22 percent between 2018 and 2028, much faster than the average rate of 5 percent for all occupations.1

The role of physical therapist assistants

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) help deliver care to patients under the supervision of a physical therapist. In a given day, they might teach someone how to properly use crutches or a walker, demonstrate strength or mobility exercises, provide massage therapy, measure patients’ progress, or use tools like ultrasound or electrical stimulation to treat patients.

Physical therapist assistants must have formal training from an approved Physical Therapist Assistant Associate’s degree program and licensure. Physical therapist aids, on the other hand, are not required to be licensed and usually only gain training on-the-job. Because they aren’t licensed, they are not permitted to provide therapy to patients. Instead, they handle administrative tasks and are often responsible for maintaining the cleanliness and order of the therapy treatment areas.

PTAs also have an optimistic job outlook—the BLS projects employment of physical therapist assistants to grow 27 percent between 2018-2028—even faster than of that of PTs.1 PTAs also have fairly strong earning potential for an occupation that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree—the BLS reports a 2018 median annual wage of $58,040.1 Becoming a physical therapy assistant may be a great option for those wanting to enter the world of PT and provide therapy without earning an advanced degree.

What is occupational therapy?

While physical therapists focus on the patient’s needs from a biomechanical perspective, occupational therapists are more focused on helping individuals do the activities that matter to them while working around their injury or illness. For adults, this can include re-learning how to get dressed, cook, drive, or work. On the other hand, children in occupational therapy may need help adapting to learning or playing in new ways at school or at home.

Patients in occupational therapy have usually suffered an injury or have a chronic condition that affects their ability to perform daily tasks. They might be dealing with the physical and cognitive effects of a stroke, a brain or spine injury, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy.

Occupational therapists can help these patients identify parts of their daily routine that are most important to them and figure out the best way for them to incorporate those meaningful activities into their lives. They use heat, cold, and electrotherapy to help reduce pain and help them learn new ways to perform tasks whether that means learning new tools or methods.

The role of occupational therapists

Occupational therapists (OTs) do a lot to help their patients accomplish their goals. In order to do so, they treat the whole person, instead of just focusing on the physical. Often, they’ll even travel to the patient’s school, home, or work to help them best adapt to their surroundings, though you’ll also find them in hospitals, outpatient clinics, schools, and long-term care facilities.

OTs are required to have either a master’s degree or doctoral degree in occupational therapy, though master’s degrees are more common, currently. After graduating, prospective occupational therapists are required to take a national exam and gain licensure through their state. Occupational therapists earn nearly same amount as physical therapists, with a median annual salary of $84,270, according to the BLS.1 Plus, the future looks bright for occupational therapists as employment is projected to grow 18 percent from 2018 through 2028.

The role of occupational therapy assistants

Similar to physical therapy assistants, licensed occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) work alongside occupational therapists in directly providing therapy to patients. This can mean helping patients practice stretches and exercises, leading children in developmental activities, and teaching patients how to use special equipment. They keep track of their patient’s progress and report changes to the patient’s occupational therapist.

OTAs must earn an associate’s degree from an accredited OTA program and gain licensure in most states in order to practice. Future OTAs have a very bright future as well, as employment is projected to grow 33 percent between 2018 and 2028.1 Once they start working, OTAs can also expect to earn a strong salary, with the BLS reporting a 2018 median annual salary of $60,220.1

As a contrast, occupational therapist aids are not required to have a college degree and often perform more administrative work as they are not licensed to provide therapy to patients.

PT vs. OT: Don’t stop learning

These two fascinating fields are uniquely poised to grow and help patients dealing with chronic conditions and recovering from injuries. This will be especially vital as chronic disease rates continue to grow, and patients continue to look for pain relief alternatives to opioid medications and the Baby Boomer generation continues to advance in age.

To learn more about how physical therapy can change patients’ lives for the better, check out our article, “Does Physical Therapy Work? 7 Success Stores That Will Make You a Believer."

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook [accessed March, 2020] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.

Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen College. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.

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