Clearing's Chronic Pain Blog

Occupy Your Best Life: Occupational Therapy, Chronic Pain and You

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

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Sometimes we forget the complexity involved in walking up stairs, brushing our teeth or buttoning our shirts. We do these familiar actions on autopilot. Until we don’t. An injury, too much wear and tear, or chronic pain turns something as simple as eating a bowl of cereal into a challenge. Isn’t it hard enough to be hurting in the first place without having to struggle with the “little things” like texting a friend or loading the darn dishwasher? 

If this sounds like you or someone you know, then we feel for you. Do you think occupational therapy might help? 

Occupational therapists help patients, including those with chronic pain, do their everyday tasks. They reduce your pain, help preserve your range of motion, and improve your surroundings. 

What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy got its start during WWI. Hospital aides taught soldiers how to knit, to help their fine motor skills. Today it takes a student at least two years of masters-level classes, plus field work and exams, to become an occupational therapist. 

Occupational therapists use their deep knowledge of anatomy and psychology to help patients stay active. They adopt a big-picture approach, including a patient’s family and setting in their treatment plan.

It’s easy to confuse occupational therapists with physical therapists. Both types of professionals help patients with injuries and a range of disabilities. Plus, both use lots of creativity to find the perfect plan for each patient.

When thinking about the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy, it might help to remember that physical therapists focus on the physical. They often work in sports-related settings and hospitals, where they help people recover from injuries. If you sprained your ankle, for example, a physical therapist might help you walk smoothly again. 

Occupational therapists restore lost function too. They also help patients keep doing everyday tasks. If chronic pain affects your ability to get dressed, drive or do other normal things, an occupational therapist may be a good fit for you.

What is occupational therapy like?

Occupational therapy is very personalized, while following an overall process. Here’s how it could look for you

  1. Your therapist would examine you, get a medical history and listen to your goals. 
  2. Your therapist might watch you perform example tasks. You may also talk about your stress levels and the places where you spend the most time.
  3. Your therapist may even visit those places to see if changing your setup could help.
  4. Then your therapist will create a custom treatment plan. It might include stretches, exercises, assistive equipment, or changes to your home. 
  5. Throughout treatment, your therapist will monitor your progress and make any needed changes. 

For example, let’s say your wrists ache, and you worry that typing may lead to long-term damage. It’s smart to be concerned, but you don’t necessarily need to resign yourself to wrist pain.

Your occupational therapist could explain how to keep your hands strong. You might also learn certain exercises or wear wrist supports. Special keyboards, adjustments to your screen, and changing your computer setup are other possibilities. 

Your state of mind matters, too, so you may practice mental pain management techniques. Finally, your family, friends or caretakers might be able to pitch in. If so, your therapist could help them understand their roles. 


In case you’re reading this on your phone, the American Occupational Therapy Association lists tips on how to avoid pain when using a smartphone

Occupational therapy typically features ways to improve your motor skills, and can include:

  • Practicing motions such as wiping a table if you have shoulder pain
  • Learning stretches to maintain your musculoskeletal strength
  • Playing Jenga to improve hand-eye coordination
  • Mastering the right way to go up and down stairs 
  • Keeping a journal to track your emotions 

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Occupational therapy for your surroundings

The settings where you spend most of your time will often “get therapy,” too. Sometimes a few tweaks to where you live and work make all the difference. 

Your occupational therapist will probably take a good, hard look, called an environmental assessment, at where you spend your time. The activities you do in those places often fall into three buckets:

1) Activities of daily living (ADLs)

Getting dressed, brushing your teeth, taking care of basic hygiene. To make those kinds of tasks easier, your therapist might recommend:

  • Decluttering your bathroom 
  • Installing a lower sink so you don’t have to reach as far
  • Putting in a curbless shower, complete with a shower chair and grab bar

2) Instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs)

These are the tasks and chores that make the household run, like meal prep, doing laundry, and brushing the dog. If you’re in pain doing these, your therapist may recommend: 

  • Lowered (or raised) countertops to fit your height 
  • Better racks and storage containers so everything is easier to use
  • Setting up remote control systems for lamps, smoke detectors, doors, heaters and air conditioners...remote control or automatic systems even exist for feeding pets and restocking bird feeders!

3) Play and leisure activities

These include playing cards, golfing, taking long walks, doing hobbies and spending time with friends. To make sure you don’t have to give these up, an occupational therapist may:

  • Suggest something as simple as a bench in the entryway so you have a safe place to put on or take off shoes 
  • Stock “grabbers” (reaching devices) for picking things up 
  • Change the grips on your sports equipment and tools 

Whatever modifications you end up making, your surroundings should suit you instead of the other way around.

How to get started with occupational therapy 

Occupational therapists are trained to understand the challenges you face with chronic pain. If you’re interested in finding a therapist, you have a lot of options.

Many people start their search at their primary doctor or pain specialist’s office. These professionals may keep a list of occupational therapists to recommend. Local hospitals and clinics may also keep lists, and it’s also possible to search online.

Occupational therapy is a rapidly growing field, so the odds of finding a therapist are good. Telehealth is also a viable option, if you can’t find a good fit in person. 

The occupational therapist you choose should be properly licensed in your state, and should also be a good listener. After your visit, you should feel understood and should know what steps come next. It’s also a good idea to check with your insurer to see if occupational services will be covered (they often will.) You may also need a referral from your doctor to get started.

More support with chronic pain at Clearing

Whether you’re fighting back from a sudden injury or have been doing your best to endure chronic pain, occupational therapists can help with your everyday tasks. 

Clearing can also help, whether you have an occupational therapist yet or not. We feature  custom recommendations, starting with a consultation and continuing with personalized services and products that could include targeted exercises, a prescription topical cream, CBD cream, nutraceuticals and access to pain specialists.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.