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 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

Support patients with memory loss or other cognitive issues

Make recommendations about adaptive equipment

Advise architects and contractors about patients' accessibility needs

Education Most practicing physical therapists hold a doctorate, which usually takes three years to complete. Master's degrees take two years and both require an undergraduate degree. More degree options. Occupational therapists need at least a master's degree to practice (two years). A doctoral degree takes between two and three years. More degree options.
Licensing/Certification

Physical therapists must be licensed. To sit for the National Physical Therapist Examination, you have to be a graduate of an accredited physical therapy school. More on certification.

Licensing laws vary by state but common requirements include graduating from an accredited occupational therapy school, meeting fieldwork requirements and passing a national certification exam. More on licensing and certification.

Pay Median annual salary: $79,860 Median annual salary: $75,400
Next step?

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
  • 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
  • Community mobility
  • Environmental modification
  • Low vision
  • Feeding, eating and swallowing
  • 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.

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