What’s the difference between physical and occupational therapy?

Last Modified: 5/11/2022

Outpatient therapy

This post was written by Courtney McPheters PT, DPT, and Andrea Marushka, OTD, OTR/L, Parkview Randallia Outpatient Therapy.

In our experience working in the acute, subacute and outpatient rehabilitation settings, we’re often asked to explain the difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy. While the goals and treatments may seem similar, the reasons for completing certain activities or exercises will differ.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy’s role in treating patients is to maximize their independence and decrease burden of care through promoting improved strength, balance, coordination and overall functional mobility as it pertains to gross motor movements. These gross motor movements include things like walking, sitting or being upright for a long period of time, improving functional endurance, etc. Physical therapists work to prescribe the least restrictive mobility assistive device so that our patients are as independent as possible, while maintaining safety. 

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapists are vital in maximizing a patient’s independence in returning to completion of meaningful activities of daily living (bathing, dressing, toileting, grooming, etc.) and instrumental activities of daily living (cooking, finance management, work duties, leisure pursuits, household chores, etc.). Occupational therapists help patients navigate and return to their occupations by providing adaptive strategies and educating them on techniques/exercises to keep them from being limited in their daily tasks following their pain, injury, disability or illness.

Occupational therapy addresses a person and their limitations through a holistic lense, considering the patient’s physical, mental, socio-emotional and spiritual wellbeing to help them return to their performance pre-injury or illness through various customized therapeutic interventions.

Intent makes a difference

While some might say that occupational therapy and physical therapy are too similar, the intent behind performing similar tasks is different. For instance, during a day in the inpatient setting, a physical therapist may join an occupational therapist in an evaluation. During this evaluation, the physical therapist is concerned with the patient’s ability to get into and out of bed, stay upright while sitting on the edge of the bed and progressing to safe walking in the room. While an occupational therapist may be concerned with the patient’s ability to sit on the edge of the bed and keep themselves upright in preparation for sitting for independence with self-feeding and/or self-grooming, or evaluating the patient’s visual/cognitive abilities, or to assess their ability to put their clothes on, fasten buttons, etc. 

As a team, occupational therapy and physical therapy both aim to get a patient home as safely and independently as possible so that a patient can have the best quality of life possible.


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