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Physical therapy vs. occupational therapy: What’s the difference?

Posted on Jun. 1, 2017 ( comments)
News image: After stroke, inpatient rehab helps patients get back to their lives

Caroline Prewitt, PT, helps patient Ralph Fiala with physical therapy exercises at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital's inpatient rehabilitation unit.

You’ve probably heard of physical therapy — maybe your runner friend goes to PT for knee or hip issues, for example.

But what is occupational therapy? And what makes it different from physical therapy?

We spoke to a physical therapist (PT) and occupational therapist (OT) to find out.

Physical therapy

Janet York is a physical therapist who works at the inpatient rehabilitation unit at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital.

The inpatient rehab unit treats stroke survivors and other adults recovering from spinal cord injuries, brain injuries and a few other conditions.

Physical therapy is the use of therapeutic exercise, assistive devices, massage and other techniques to help a patient restore movement in the body that has been hindered by illness, disability or injury, York says.

“Physical therapists are focused on helping patients regain functional mobility,” she says.

When someone loses the ability to walk, balance or stay safe from falling, for example, they may benefit from physical therapy.

Examples of physical therapy exercises include going up and down stairs, walking and strength-based activities such as lifting weights.

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapist Cathryn Shaffer also works at the inpatient rehabilitation unit at Good Samaritan.

The same patient receiving physical therapy may also benefit from occupational therapy if their physical, visual or cognitive limitations interfere with tasks of everyday living — eating, bathing, dressing, getting out of bed, using the toilet.

Occupational therapy primarily focuses on these activities, also known as “activities of daily living,” or “anything you do to take care of yourself every day,” Shaffer says.

Stroke patients commonly receive both physical and occupational therapy during their recovery.

“If a patient comes to me after they’ve had a stroke, they might have difficulty being able to balance, to walk, but then they also might have weakness in one side of their body or be unable to use their arm fully, and this makes it difficult to get themselves dressed or hold their balance standing in the shower,” she says. “So PT and OT work together to progress that patient to being able to get dressed again for themselves, get into the bathroom and be able to use the toilet or take a shower.”

Another way to describe it, Shaffer says, is PT helps a person get from point A to point B and OT helps a person do things at point A and B.

“What I like about OT is we look at the big picture,” she says. “You might be able to walk, stand, balance, but what does any of that matter if you can’t get dressed, take care of your kids, cook, go to work? PT and OT work together and complement each other.”

Learn more about Good Samaritan Hospital's Rehabilitation Unit

About The Author

Roxanne Cooke

Roxanne Cooke tells stories in words, photos and video. She manages VitalsKite Strings and Bring Happy Back, plus special projects such as CeCe's Journey24 Hours at Tacoma General Hospital and The Healthy Futures Project. You can reach her at [email protected]

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