Senior man exercises hand next to occupational therapist.

Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: Which Is Right for Me?

Occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT) are types of rehabilitative care used to improve the condition or quality of life following injury, surgery or illness. Both OT and PT allow older adults to build strength and recover from or adapt to physical and cognitive changes.

Generally, physical therapists specialize in how the body moves. They work with patients to help improve or restore mobility. Occupational therapists take a more holistic approach to treatment. They help patients overcome the issues that prevent them from performing daily activities.

Because these two forms of therapy overlap in the treatment they provide, it sometimes can be difficult to differentiate between occupational therapy and physical therapy. In this article we’ll take a closer look at some of the similarities and differences between these therapies. We’ll also identify how we use occupational therapy at The Waterford to empower our residents.

Similarities Between OT and PT

Occupational therapy and physical therapy share quite a few similarities. OT and PT have the same purpose in that they aim to improve your overall function and quality of life. Both therapies start with an evaluation to determine individual goals and needs based on your condition.

From there, your occupational or physical therapist will map out a course of therapy. This often includes stretches or exercises that build strength, reduce pain and promote independence.

It’s not uncommon for occupational therapists and physical therapists to work together to provide the best course of treatment for their patients. When evaluating a senior living community, such as The Waterford, we recommend that you look at available on-site health services.

“At The Waterford, we combine a holistic approach to assess cognitive and physical impairments in order to optimize maximum engagement with mobility and daily routine,” says Deena West, Occupational Therapy Program Director at The Waterford’s Health Center. “Physical therapists focus more on ambulation and the musculature involved with that activity, while occupational therapy focuses on independent functioning of self-care tasks and daily living skills.”

Both occupational and physical therapists set patient goals tied to performing movements or completing activities. They monitor progress and make adjustments along the way.

Differences Between OT and PT

When identifying the differences between occupational therapy and physical therapy, it is helpful to look at how professional associations for each therapy define the roles tied to them.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) defines an occupational therapist as someone who “helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities (occupations).” Meanwhile, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) describes physical therapists as “movement experts who improve the quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care and patient education.”

“PT will typically address lower body strength and balance deficits, which affect transfers and mobility,” West says in her explanation of how the two therapies differ. “OT will typically address deficits which affect self performance of activities of daily living. These include dressing, toileting, grooming, hygiene and higher-level tasks, such as cooking, laundry and home management.”

Common Reasons to See an OT Provider

As already noted, occupational therapy uses activities in a therapeutic way. It also emphasizes activities that include the use of upper extremities, such as the arms, shoulders and hands. At The Waterford, we use occupational therapy to help residents stay active and independent.

Some of the conditions that may benefit from occupational therapy include:

  • Recovery from injury or surgery
  • Pain management, including chronic pain management
  • Neurological conditions, such as recovery from a stroke
  • Joint conditions, such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Hand conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Psychological conditions, such as depression or anxiety
  • Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease

Occupational therapy can also help older adults learn or relearn how to:

  • Perform tasks that require fine motor skills, such as writing or buttoning a shirt
  • Use assistive devices that encourage mobility, such as wheelchairs and walkers
  • Get safely into and out of chairs, bed or the bathtub<
  • Use exercises to help increase flexibility or reduce pain
  • Perform job-related activities and return to work or volunteer

“Occupational therapy can be implemented to modify environments in order to allow for the safest independent level of functioning for those who may have vision, cognitive and/or physical limitations,” West says. “An occupational therapist can also recommend adaptive equipment to promote energy conservation and optimal body mechanics for joint preservation.”

Using Therapy to Help You Live Your Best Life

At The Waterford we take pride in our ability to provide access to the full continuum of care at our senior Health Center, including skilled nursing and senior rehabilitation services. We offer a variety of diagnostic and therapy services on-site to help residents live their best lives. Our occupational therapy program helps residents to participate in activities and maintain their independence.

If you’d like to get more information on The Waterford’s occupational therapy program or our related Health Services, fill out the form below or call us at 561-627-3800.