Clearing's Chronic Pain Blog

Physical Therapy vs Occupational Therapy: What’s the Difference?

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

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Many people turn to therapists so they can live life to the fullest and manage both acute and chronic pain. Since both physical therapy and occupational therapy have grown in popularity, it’s a good time to clarify the difference between the two. 

Both occupational and physical therapists solve all kinds of problems on behalf of their patients. They are committed to promoting their patients’ health and well-being by helping improve their patients’ quality of life. 

So that they can meet their patients where they’re at, both types of therapists have expanded the types of places in which they practice. They now work in schools, gyms, spas, sports settings and even homes. 

Despite some overlap, occupational and physical therapists have different approaches, focus on different skillsets and aim for different kinds of outcomes.

What is the history of physical therapy and occupational therapy?

Professional PT began in the early 19th century with massages and special exercises designed to help people recover from their injuries. The practice was first called “physiotherapie,” which translates from Swedish as “gymnastics for the ill.” 

PT focused on strengthening muscles and enhancing movement while making many valuable contributions throughout the twentieth century. It proved itself in how well it ended up preventing paralysis for injured World War 2 soldiers as well as for polio patients. By the 1950s, physical therapy had become an accepted medical discipline.

Occupational therapy also has roots in the 19th century, and was driven by a major shift in attitudes toward mental health. In the past, patients with mental health disorders were often sent to prison to be locked away as threats to society. 

But as a new emphasis on human rights emerged in the 1800s, it spurred on the advent of asylums. These tried to offer safe spaces where patients with mental illness could pursue fulfilling occupations and live meaningful lives. 

Leaders realized that work, hobbies and other kinds of “occupational engagement” helped those with mental illness much more than being imprisoned did. This holistic view of patients is one of the differences that distinguish occupational therapy from physical therapy.

What is the difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy?

Physical therapy (PT) is a type of treatment that uses advanced exercises to deal with injuries and pain. PT is used for a wide range of conditions because it focuses so much on how to help a patient move his or her body and get their lives back, so to speak. 

PT excels, for example, at helping a patient build or regain muscle strength. It can also be useful following a surgery or for helping people cope with chronic pain. However it’s used, the goal of physical therapy is to restore capabilities, including a full range of motion, and to reduce or eliminate pain. 

Occupational therapy, or OT, aims to improve the kinds of movements patients need to do for daily living. These can be as basic as getting out of bed, walking the dog, putting away groceries and brushing their teeth. It’s true that OT can help relieve pain, but the main focus of OT is to help patients live on their own as much as possible. 

Mental health plays a role within an OT approach as well, just as physical health does. OT exercises do not typically try to get a patient to recover from a specific injury. Instead, they support a healthy life full of activity and variety.

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How does a physical therapist differ from an occupational therapist?

Physical therapists are true experts in movement, strength and balance. They often work with athletes who were injured playing sports, but that’s not their only area of expertise. They may also decide to specialize in caring for heart patients, for older patients, or for patients recovering from brain injuries, to list only a few of the types of patients they may serve. 

To help patients get back on their feet and start moving again, physical therapists finish hundreds of hours of training, plus a series of tests, before getting a license. Many physical therapists get even more education, earning certificates or even completing a PhD. In any case, physical therapists are highly trained to offer the best of modern science.

Patients may need to learn certain skills all over again, including how to stand, walk and perform other large, complex movements. These kinds of movements may have seemed effortless in childhood, but have to be practiced over and over after a bad injury. 

So physical therapists use their problem solving skills to come up with ways to help their patients heal. Their treatment plans help patients avoid surgery. They also reduce the risk of becoming addicted to pain medications such as opioids.

Popular exercises prescribed by physical therapists include:

  • Balance exercises, such as a balance beam
  • Low-impact cardio, such as a recumbent bike or rowing machine 
  • Muscle and deep tissue massage
  • Heat or cold therapy 
  • Guided movement and mobility exercises
  • Muscle stretching and strengthening exercise 
  • Electrical stimulation 
  • Low-level laser therapy 
  • Gentle ultrasound therapy 

Some physical therapists specialize in treatments for specific parts of the body, like hand therapy. Others treat injuries from trauma or overuse (including tennis elbow, fractures, joint dislocations and kitchen mishaps). 

Physical therapists can treat both acute and chronic pain. In one trial, researchers found that physical therapy lowered chronic lower back pain for a full year after treatment was completed.

Occupational therapists must also do training and fieldwork, then pass an exam, to earn their license so they can practice in their home states. They help people keep doing their daily activities so they can live on their own as much as possible. That may mean changing their everyday surroundings as well as changing the way in which they move. 

Rather than helping patients with large muscle movements, such as walking, occupational therapists often help patients improve fine motor skills. These are the kinds of movements needed for cutting food, unzipping a sweater, or brushing their teeth. Though those motions can seem simple, they are often just as challenging as bigger, more dramatic kinds of movement. 

Common OT suggestions or directions for day-to-day support include:

  • Installing railings or flooring to help prevent falls
  • Creating customized workspaces for those with wrist issues
  • Setting up magnifying video screens 
  • Installing phones and doorbells that amplify volume or vibrate
  • Introducing technology for memory loss or declining cognitive abilities, such as automated reminders to turn off the stove or take medication
  • Setting up a virtual assistant, such as Alexa 
  • Stocking automated pill dispensers to keep track of medicine
  • Training caregivers on the best ways to offer help

To sum it up, occupational therapists can help patients improve both their mental and physical health by offering a range of positive coping strategies within a supportive environment.

The bottom line

Both physical and occupational therapists are trained to understand the ins and outs of how people move. They both consider pain management and how to promote quality of life for their patients. 

Physical therapists often work on a specific area of the body so a patient can walk, exercise or play sports again. Occupational therapists, on the other hand, often work on fine motor skills so patients can continue their everyday lives.

Both OT and PT can help with pain relief and can promote a positive mindset.

How Clearing supports patients seeking PT treatment

If you’re interested in reaping benefits similar to those provided by PT from the comfort of your own home, Clearing offers personalized home exercises to help you feel your best. These exercises are designed by experts and can be adjusted to match your range of motion and level of pain. They can also be done at home with little to no equipment. Depending on your situation, your care at Clearing may also include nutraceuticals, CBD cream, custom compounded cream, health coaching, and access to leading health 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.