Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: Which Career Should You Choose?
Patients receiving therapy might not always be able to tell you the difference between occupational therapy vs. physical therapy, which might be surprising considering the massive impact each therapy can have on their lives.
In fact, a majority of people who have had no direct contact with either of the fields may not be aware that there is a difference at all. I’ve seen this time and again when telling people that I’m an occupational therapist, which often turns into a teachable moment about how occupational therapy can help people.
So if you’re thinking about going into therapy (whether it’s occupational therapy or physical therapy), knowing the difference between the two disciplines is crucial in choosing the right career path for you.
If you happen to be contemplating working in speech therapy, you can read about the differences between all three disciplines here. For this article, I will be primarily focusing on the differences between occupational therapy vs. physical therapy.
Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: What is the Difference?
Not knowing the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy isn’t simply a matter of a general lack of familiarity. The two fields are actually very closely related. In a large percentage of cases, our services may overlap as we both have goals to improve the patient’s safety and independence in their day to day activities.
An example: A patient in the hospital who had a stroke and who is below their functional baseline may work with an occupational therapist in the morning and a physical therapist in the afternoon and might not realize the two are different unless the therapists explain what they’re doing and why. Many of the treatments of both disciplines in rehab settings include mobility training, balance work, strengthening, and caregiver education, which can make the treatments look similar at times.
Why so similar? Well, both fields can officially be traced back to the reconstruction aides working with World War One soldiers that were injured both physically and mentally, who needed rehabilitation following combat. (For more about the history and founding of OT and PT, check out the articles A Brief History of Occupational Therapy (My OT Spot) and The Rise of Physical Therapy: A History in Footsteps (AMHS Journal).
The goal of the reconstruction aides in WWI was to “provide ‘diversion from pain and situation’ and worked toward ‘recovery of function and specific deficits.'” (AOTA, 2020). It wasn’t until after the war that the two disciplines became separate.
Even now, the overall goals of both fields are to increase an injured or ill client’s capabilities, increase their independence, improve their quality of life, help prevent future injury, and to relieve pain when possible.
The differences in the two reside in the specific methods by which they accomplish this. Occupational therapists focus on helping the client regain their ability to perform activities of daily living (such as basic self-care tasks). Physical therapists, on the other hand, generally focus on improving a client’s movement/mobility and/or physical impairment (such as an acute injury).
Both disciplines complete a thorough evaluation and create specific treatments and care plans to address a client’s deficit area(s). We’ll dive more into what this looks like in the following sections.
The Role of Occupational Therapy
Occupational therapists differ from physical therapists in that instead of only focusing on the deficit and functionality of a specific body part, OTs look at a more holistic approach with focus on the person as a whole along with the daily functions they need and want to perform.
As such, occupational therapists work with the client to help them regain their ability to accomplish daily activities of living (such as dressing and bathing) as much as possible. This can be done by addressing a specific deficit (as a PT would do) but with an emphasis on improving the deficit to increase independence with their self-care tasks. OTs also provide adaptive equipment education to increase a patient’s independence, such as providing dressing equipment if a patient can no longer get dressed on their own.
Clients with a new illness or injury leading to physical impairment benefit from gaining or regaining the ability to perform everyday activities, with the help of OT. For many, this can make a significant difference in both convenience and independence, improving that person’s quality of life.
Because occupational therapy is centered more on the performance of an activity than on the performance of a specific body part, it is also often a crucial part of the treatment plan for patients affected by a new impairment.
If someone has an acute injury or illness and goes to rehab following their hospitalization, they will work with physical therapy to regain their strength and mobility while they work with occupational therapy to not only address their strength and mobility related to their self-care but also to work on strategies to make their daily living tasks easier and safer.
In cases of permanent disability, OTs will also help the client learn strategies to compensate for their inability to perform a routine task in the traditional manner. For an example of these strategies, you can check out our article, Compensatory Strategies for Patients with Spinal Cord Injuries.
Regardless of the type of injury, the goal of the occupational therapist is to help the person develop methods and abilities they need to handle everyday life.
Because the patient’s life happens outside of the confines of the therapy clinic or hospital, the occupational therapist has to consider not only the client’s everyday activities, but also the environments with which they need to be able to interact. Often, that can involve helping the patient consider necessary modifications to their own home environments if necessary, along with caregiver education in the home setting.
This is a brief overview, so for more on occupational therapy’s role, be sure to read AOTA’s article What Is Occupational Therapy?
The Role of Physical Therapy
As mentioned above, in a rehab setting, physical therapy differs from occupational therapy in that instead of working on independence with activities of daily living, PTs address increasing independence with a client’s mobility and can also focus on “reducing pain, restoring function and preventing disability” (APTA, 2019).
When thinking about physical therapy in an outpatient setting, some people like to use this analogy: If you take your car to a mechanic, they determine the problem you’re experiencing and the means for rectifying it by identifying a malfunctioning automotive part and replacing it. Physical therapists can be thought of like automotive mechanics for the body. They don’t replace body parts, of course, but they do focus on improving the performance of the problematic area.
All of the exercises, interventions, stretches, and manual therapy techniques that a physical therapist suggest for a client are specifically intended to increase a patient’s range of motion and functionality and/or decrease their pain level in a particular area. As physical therapists work to help a client regain a former state of mobility and/or functionality, they often work in rehabilitation situations following injury, illness, or surgery.
A few examples: Injured athletes who have reconstructive ligament surgery will often work with physical therapists in an outpatient setting to return to a normal range of strength and movement capabilities. After a person has a joint replacement surgery, they will also work with physical therapists to strengthen and rehab those joints and improve movement.
If a patient had a stroke or other disabling accident/injury which reduced their mobility and function, a physical therapist will work with them on increasing their independence with their mobility, balance, and walking if possible.
These are just a few examples of physical therapy intervention. For more on physical therapy’s role, check out APTA’s article The Role of a Physical Therapist.
What Settings Can OTs and PTs Work In?
A great aspect of a career in either occupational therapy or physical therapy is the variety of settings you can work in. For both OT and PT, you can choose whether you want to work in an inpatient rehab center, a school, an acute care hospital, in an outpatient clinic, or in a person’s home. There are of course more settings to choose from but these are the main settings you’ll find OT and PT.
There are so many populations to work as well, from pediatrics to older adults, and everything in between. Switching settings and populations at any point in your career is also totally possible and a great way to keep learning and to add variety to your career.
Both Careers Sound Great, But What About the Pay?
Likely because the two disciplines’ goals can be similar and because OTs and PTs often work side by side providing similar treatments at times, the difference between the pays for physical therapists and for occupational therapists is often negligible and influenced by fluctuations in the local supply and demand of each.
That being said, a 2017 nationwide survey of average salaries for the two therapy professions showed physical therapists making slightly more annually, at an average of $1,290 more per year (note that this can vary widely by setting and location). Since this difference is minor, it is not considered to be significant enough to affect a choice between the two disciplines.
Instead, prospective therapists are much more likely to benefit from understanding the difference between the roles that physical therapists and occupational therapists perform and determining which best fits their own individual interests and talents.
Make Sure to Research Before You Choose
There are plenty of articles that cover the similarities and differences of occupational therapy vs. physical therapy, so I recommend you spend time reading as many of these articles as you can. Be sure to also take the time to shadow both disciplines in multiple settings, and don’t forget to log your shadowing hours for your school applications!
I would also encourage prospective students to take a careful look at the tuition costs of the Doctorates of PT and OT compared to the still-available Master’s degree in OT if cost plays a large role in your decision, as Master’s degrees are generally tens of thousands of dollars less than Doctorate degrees.
Even with the OT Master’s degrees being slowly phased out into Doctorates, you can still practice as an OT with a Master’s for the entirety of your career. If you’re leaning towards becoming an OT, be sure to read our article The MOT vs. OTD: Which Degree Should You Pursue? which compares the two degrees in more detail.
Note that physical therapists only have the option of getting a Doctorate at this time.
We hope this article helped you in your quest to find out about the differences of occupational therapy vs. physical therapy.
Whether you’re a prospective therapist or a patient receiving therapy, if you have any questions about the two disciplines, please leave them in the comments below.