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What’s the Difference Between an Occupational Therapist & Physical Therapist?

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Home » Blog » Physical Therapist vs. Occupational Therapist

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All Allied Health Schools Staff

Contributing writer

Occupational therapist vs. physical therapist. Which career is right for you? 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.

The Key Differences

Here’s a comparison between occupational therapist vs. physical therapist professions:

Job Duties

Physical Therapists

  • 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

Occupational Therapists

  • Support patients with memory loss or other cognitive issues
  • Make recommendations about adaptive equipment
  • Advise architects and contractors about patients’ accessibility needs
  • Help patients with daily living skills and self-care tasks (i.e., “occupations”) such as getting dressed

Education

Physical Therapists

Occupational Therapists

  • Occupational therapists need at least a master’s degree to practice (two years). A doctoral degree takes between two and three years.

Licensing and Certification

Physical Therapists

Occupational Therapists

  • 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.

Average Annual Salary

Physical Therapists

  • $90,170 says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics

Occupational Therapists

  • $86,210 says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics

Next Steps

Physical Therapists

  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s health

Occupational Therapists

  • 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
  • Environment modification
  • Low vision
  • Feeding, eating, swallowing
  • School systems

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 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational 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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