Occupational therapists focus on enabling people to do the things they want and need to do in their everyday lives.

In this article, we explain what occupational therapy is, what occupational therapists do, and what to expect during an appointment with one of these professionals.

We also explain the differences between occupational therapy and physical therapy.

Reportage in a long-term geriatric unit (Haute-Savoie, France). An occupational therapist evaluates the autonomy of a patient in her daily routine. (Photo by: BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)Share on Pinterest
An occupational therapist may evaluate how able a person is to carry out everyday tasks.
Image credit: BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

Occupational therapy is a healthcare profession. It focuses on helping people do all the things that they want and need to do in their daily lives.

These might include:

  • work
  • school
  • hobbies
  • social situations
  • household tasks

A doctor might refer someone to an occupational therapist if they have acquired a disability, are recovering from a medical event, such as a stroke, or have had an operation.

By helping people carry out their daily activities, occupational therapy aims to promote health and improve quality of life.

Occupational therapists work to help people develop, recover, and improve while maintaining the skills that they need to live their lives.

Occupational therapists (OTs) offer practical advice and support to help people carry out their daily activities.

Their work centers on adapting a person’s environment so that it better suits them and the things they want and need to do. OTs work with lots of people of all ages.

Common examples of what they do include:

  • helping people going through physical changes to carry on working
  • helping people experiencing changes in how they think or remember things to carry on working
  • helping children with disabilities fully participate in school
  • helping people with disabilities take part in social situations, hobbies, or sports

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, therapists will:

  • work with the person and their family to identify their goals
  • design a custom intervention, or plan, that will help the person perform their everyday activities and reach their goals
  • check to see whether the person is meeting their goals and make any necessary changes to the plan

About half of the OTs in the United States work in specialist centers or hospitals. The others work in schools, nursing homes, or health services.

Most occupational therapists will have a master’s degree in the subject, and all must receive a license to operate.

During an occupational therapy appointment, the OT will want to evaluate the person’s abilities and goals. How they do this will very much depend on the person and their needs.

However, the therapist will usually begin by reviewing the person’s medical history and asking them some questions about what they do in their day-to-day lives. They may then ask to watch the person carry out certain tasks.

The OT might also evaluate the person’s home, school, or workplace to see whether they can spot any ways to improve them.

For example, they may suggest labeling the kitchen cabinets of older people with memory loss or installing a handrail in the bathroom for people who find it hard to move around.

Once the OT has a clear idea of the person’s circumstances and goals, they will use that information to develop a treatment plan.

They may recommend special equipment, such as eating aids or a wheelchair, and help people learn to use it.

The OT will usually assess the person’s progress after a few weeks or months. They will ask how the person is doing in terms of achieving their goals. They may also suggest changes to the treatment plan at this stage, if necessary.

People often confuse occupational therapy and physical therapy because specialists in both areas work with similar groups of people and offer practical support. However, these types of therapy are different.

Occupational therapy focuses on improving people’s ability to perform the tasks that they need to do in their everyday life. Physical therapy is different because it focuses on helping people improve their movement.

Physical therapists (PTs) are movement experts who improve quality of life for people with specific movement dysfunctions. They do this through:

  • prescribing specific exercises
  • providing hands-on care
  • educating people on the affected area of their body

After making a diagnosis, PTs create personalized plans that help people:

  • improve their mobility, such as for those with stiff joints or muscles
  • manage pain and other chronic conditions, such as persistent back pain
  • recover from injury or surgery
  • prevent further injuries

Both OTs and PTs work with people on an individual level and develop plans to help them achieve their targets.

However, while an OT will focus on the person’s goals relating to carrying out their everyday activities, a physical therapist will concentrate on the person’s movement goals.

An OT will usually recommend specialist equipment or suggest different ways of doing things that might help a person perform their necessary tasks.

Physical therapists tend to prescribe a course of exercises to help improve the way the person moves.

Occupational therapy is a healthcare profession that focuses on enabling people to do the things they want and need to do in their everyday lives.

OTs work with people who are experiencing illness or disability or are recovering from a medical event, such as a stroke or an operation.

The OT will work with the person to understand their abilities and goals, then develop a treatment plan based on that information. They may recommend methods and equipment that will help the person carry out these activities.

Occupational therapy helps people adapt their environment to meet their needs. It is different than physical therapy, which helps people improve their movement.