You may not know what occupational therapy is, but it is probably something that you’ve seen before without noticing it.

You can find occupational therapists in homes, hospitals, schools, prisons, nursing facilities, substance abuse treatment facilities, doctor’s offices, rehab — you name it. 

Maybe you think occupational therapy is just another name for physical therapy, but it’s not. 

One of the most common questions we hear about rehabilitative care is about the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy. Here’s the gist.

The Basics: Physical Therapy Versus Occupational Therapy

To start to understand the differences, it can be helpful to define them and start with the basics.

These two types of therapy actually used to be combined, back in World War I. People used to call these therapists reconstruction aides, and they were supposed to help rehabilitate veterans from that war. 

Now, however, there is a distinction between these two therapists. Physical therapy mainly focuses on gross motor function.

On the other hand, occupational therapy focuses more on how its patients use those motor functions and cognition to carry out the tasks that are meaningful for them.

To simplify it, physical therapy is kind of the basic foundation, and occupational therapy expands on that foundation.

For example, if a patient has a stroke and loses all strength in his back, a physical therapist might help them regain that strength and control over those muscles.

After the patient accomplishes that, they will move on to see an occupational therapist so that they can learn how to put their shirt on again. Or learn the movements to get something off a top shelf. Or maybe learn how to take a shower again. 

Physical therapists normally work mostly with people who are recovering from some type of injury because it can sometimes be a good, long-term substitute for medication or surgery. 

Occupational therapists can help people who suffered an injury, but they can also help people who have developmental or mental disabilities that affect their motion, behavior, or emotions.

Education and Training

One difference between physical therapists versus occupational therapists is the difference in their training. 

Some of it is similar. For example, both therapists have to earn a bachelor’s and a graduate-level degree. And for undergraduate classes, they will most likely both take courses like biology, psychology, statistics, anatomy, and physiology.  

From there though, they start to go their separate ways.  

Physical therapy programs often take chemistry and physics, while occupational therapists take classes in neuroscience, sociology, communications, art, and kinesiology. 

To become a physical therapist, students will have had to complete a doctorate in physical therapy. Occupational therapists will have to complete a master’s degree in Occupational Therapy or get a doctorate in occupational therapy. 

Not only are the basics of education different, but the training is also different. 

A physical therapist’s training would be more focused on learning how the body works and how different systems work together.  They can study how these muscles and systems affect exercise, movement, and positioning.  

An occupational therapist’s training will include a wide range of things. For example, they may study physical exercise while also studying problem-solving 

They will also learn how to help their patients with muscle memory, organization problems, how to keep a schedule, and they will also be able to help their patient with social skills. Studying psychology and understanding how to help their patient is a big part of their training. 


Just like there are different certifications for doctors, therapists, and psychologists, there are also different certifications for an occupational therapist and physical therapist.

Physical therapists have to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam. Occupational therapists have to pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. 

Once the therapists pass this test, they must go through even more training and education to maintain their license in the state that they want to practice. 

Both therapists can also get different certifications to help them get more patients and to focus on a more focused type of care.


Occupational and physical therapists are jobs that are in high demand, but they do make a little bit different salaries.  

In the United States, an occupational therapist can make between $78,808 and $93,732.

On the other hand, a physical therapist can make between the range of $78,242 and $92,157

This pay can depend on many different factors including what state the therapists they are in, what setting they’re practicing in, and what certifications they have.


The goal of physical therapy is normally to improve a patient’s muscle’s strength, range of motion, and balance.  Depending on the injury or the goal, they will focus their treatment on the spine. 

On the other hand, the goal of occupational therapy is to improve their patient’s quality of life. They want to expand on those lessons learned in physical therapy, and to help with every-day tasks such as:

  • Chores around the house
  • Leisure activities
  • Playing
  • Socialization 
  • Self-care


If you are interested in receiving physical therapy or occupational therapy, there are many different places where you can find both therapists

In some places, you may be able to find both of them in the same building.  

As mentioned above, you can find these therapists in places like:

  • Schools
  • Skilled Nursing Homes
  • Hospitals
  • Home health
  • Inpatient and Outpatient Services
  • Veterans Affairs Hospitals
  • Work environments
  • Sport Facilities

While they share similar work environments, they can also practice in different places. 

You can find a physical therapist almost anywhere, but they may have their own office, and most of the sessions will take place there as the therapist and their patient work on different exercises, massages, and other techniques to improve their movements. 

An occupational therapist may chose to work in a hospital or to have their own private office. However, some of the sessions may take place in the patient’s house or even where they work.


So if you want to start receiving occupational or physical therapy, what should you expect when you go to your sessions?

Despite their differences, there are also many similarities. Often times, the physical therapist will often work in coordination with an occupational therapist. 

Sometimes they work together, and sometimes a patient will start out seeing a physical therapist and then switch over to seeing an occupational therapist.  

While patients can use both a physical and occupational therapist, the patient should understand that these therapists will take different approaches to treatment. 

Both physical and occupational therapists treat all kinds of people with all different ages. 

For example, if you suffered from a stroke, a brain injury, or just had surgery, and you went to see a physical therapist, your sessions may include this in a skilled nursing facility:

  • Utilize a standing frame to help you regain an upright posture
  • Show you how to use a wheelchair or crutches if you have them
  • Test their exercise abilities
  • Decide what their mobile skills may be and inform their doctor and nurse

But if you were in the same situation and saw an occupational therapist, your session will look a little bit different:

  • Help you take a shower safely
  • Recommend that you use things to help your day-to-day life like using
    • Swivel spoons
    • Plate guards
    • Wrist cuffs
  • Show you how to use a Theraband or Theraputty to help you with recovery

Let’s look at another example.

If you were in a rehabilitation facility and wanted to see a physical therapist, they may have you do things like: 

  • Aquatic therapy
  • Obstacle courses
  • Using a stability ball

If you were in the same situation but wanted to see an occupational therapist, this may be what you would focus on:

  • Managing your medication
  • Crafts
  • Meditation
  • Exercise

One final example would be looking at the difference between occupational and physical therapy can be viewed at by looking at children.

If an elementary school child has cerebral palsy, their physical therapy sessions could look like this:

  • Working on balance
  • Focusing on 

If the same child was also in occupational therapy, their sessions would consist of things like:

  • Focusing on handwriting
  • Socializing with other children
  • Cutting paper 

Find an Occupational or Physical Therapist

So to summarize, physical therapy is to help you regain muscle strength or motion.  A physical therapist will use treatments to help you with your ability to move, they will help you restore function to your muscles, and they will try to prevent disability and to reduce any pain you feel. 

Occupational therapy expands on physical therapy to help you with your daily tasks and to improve your well being. 

One thing that physical and occupational therapy have in common are working on improving and developing theireverydayy functions and movements. 

They both emphasize the patient’s independence and quality of life.  They both can be long-term and work with the patient for as long as necessary. 

Now that you know the difference between the two types of therapy, you can start looking for one who can treat you. 

If you have any more questions about occupational or physical therapy or want to find one, feel free to contact us today!

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