Is Online Occupational Therapy Just Glorified Physical Therapy?

People are often curious about the relationship between Occupational Therapy (OT) and Physical Therapy (PT). Since both Onsite and Online Occupational Therapists help individuals increase their independence after an injury or physical impairment, they seem quite similar. In fact, some even think that the two are synonymous!

However, despite their many similarities, there are significant and important differences between the two professions as well. Lacking awareness of these differences may prevent someone in need from seeking the right therapy and getting the best help. So, what exactly is this difference?

Physical Therapy Defined

As part of their education and training, occupational and physical therapists must learn and master the anatomy, the musculoskeletal system, and physiological functioning much like that of a medical doctor.  However, Physical Therapists apply this education to improving movement and regaining strength, especially after an accident or injury.

Physical therapy is concerned with identifying, understanding and treating abnormalities arising from injuries or other physical impairments. While an occupational therapist will conduct a diagnosis as well, the physical therapist diagnoses and treats the physical source of the problem; the injured tissues and structures.

So, Then What is Occupational Therapy?

After determining what hinders the client’s freedom, Onsite or Online Occupational Therapy sets out to change that!  The OT evaluates and aims to improve a person’s functional abilities.  An OT does not treat the injury but rather seeks to optimize their patient’s independence.  The goal is to enable the patient to live “normally” notwithstanding physical impairment or injury.

Since the Occupational Therapist focuses on increasing functionality, the OT sometimes will perform assessments of the patient’s environments–whether it be work or home.  These assessments allows the OT to recommend modifications that will maximize quality of life and greater independence. In Online Occupational Therapy, a third party will perform this evaluation.

Integral to the occupational therapist’s training is the understanding that the client’s success may require modifying the physical environment to help the patient to maximize functionality in light of constraints and limitations due to the injury.  Alternatively, this may require the patient to use equipment designed to increase independence, all part of the Occupational Therapist’s training.

Simply, The Difference Is?

Understanding the role of each therapist, it’s time to clarify the difference.  The easiest way to describe the difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy is that a physical therapist (or physical therapy assistant) treats the patient’s actual impairment, while an occupational therapist (or occupational therapy assistant) treats that impairment in action.

Physical Therapy aims to improve the physical function that has been compromised by the disability by increasing mobility, aligning bones and joints or lessening pain. On the other hand, On-Site or Online Occupational Therapy helps patients adapt to their “new reality” by showing them how to compensate and complete necessary everyday tasks despite new challenges.

Integrating Physical and Occupational Therapy

The beauty is that often these two therapies can be integrated to maximize the patient’s benefit.  For example, for a patient recovering from knee replacement surgery, the PT would give exercises designed at improving mobility with the new artificial knee and to ease post-surgery pain and stiffness.

On the other hand, the OT would instruct the patient how to use a wheelchair in the early stages of recovery.  Once the patient was ready, the OT would shift to helping practice going up and down stairs on the new knee.  This close collaboration between the PT and OT becomes critical in helping the patient achieve a full recovery.