Physical Therapist vs. Occupational Therapist: What's the Difference?


Occupational therapists
and physical therapists both do vital hands-on rehabilitative work to help patients with injuries or disabilities that limit how they're able to move and function in daily life.

PTs work primarily with people recovering from injuries. The goal is to get patients back in motion with exercises, massage and other techniques, and therapy usually happens in a PT's office. Physical therapy often focuses on preventing injuries, and it can help people avoid surgery or a long-term reliance on medications.

OTs help their patients perform day-to-day tasks, whether they're recovering from injuries or have developmental or cognitive disabilities affecting their motor skills, emotions or behavior. Some occupational therapy might happen in a hospital or OT's office, but a key component occurs in a patient's home or work environment. There's a strong emphasis on the practical aspects of helping people do the things they want and need to do so they can live life to the fullest.

Here's a breakdown of some other differences between these two fast-growing professions:

Profession Physical Therapists Occupational Therapists
Job Duties Diagnose physical problems restricting movement because of an illness or injury, use exercises and other hand-on techniques to ease pain and boost mobility and muscle strength, develop fitness and wellness programs aimed at preventing injuries and encouraging a more active lifestyle. Help patients with daily living skills and self-care tasks (i.e., "occupations") such as getting dressed, provide supports to patients with memory loss or other cognitive issues, make recommendations about adaptive equipment such as shower bars, advise architects and contractors about patients' accessibility needs.
Education Many practicing physical therapists have a doctoral degree, which usually takes about three years to complete. There are also master's degree programs, which can take two to three years. Both types of postgraduate programs require a bachelor's degree. More on degree options. To practice as an occupational therapist, you'll need at least a master's degree, which typically takes two and a half years to complete. There are also doctoral degrees that can be completed in two to three years. More on degree options.
Licensing / certification All states require physical therapists to be licensed. To sit for the National Physical Therapist Examination, you have to be a graduate of an accredited physical therapy school. More on licensing and certification. Licensing laws vary by state but common requirements include graduating from an accredited occupational therapy school, meeting fieldwork requirements, passing a national certification exam. More on licensing and certification.
Pay Median annual salary: $79,860 Median annual salary: $75,400
Job Growth 36 percent increase through 2022 29 percent increase through 2022
Next step? PTs can seek certification from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties after meeting clinical practice requirements by working with patients in a specialty area, such as geriatrics, neurology, orthopedics, pediatrics, sports, and women's health.

OTs can seek board certification in gerontology, mental health, pediatrics or physical rehabilitation after meeting clinical practice requirements; or specialty certification in driving and community mobility, environmental modification, low vision, and feeding, eating and swallowing. (A new specialty certification option in 2013: school systems.) Find out more from the American Occupational Therapy Association.

In some cases, patients start out with a physical therapist then move on to an occupational therapist. One example: Someone recovering from a stroke might work with a physical therapist to build back muscle strength. Later on, that person would see an occupational therapist to work on buttoning a shirt, using the restroom or taking a shower.

If you're interested in either career, there are entry-level educational and career options. Find out more about what it takes to become a physical therapy assistant or an occupational therapy assistant.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists; American Occupational Therapy Association; American Physical Therapy Association.

The salary information and job growth data listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.