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What Is an Occupational Therapist?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

Occupational therapists are licensed health care professionals who help people find ways to do daily activities that they need or want to do.

While the word "occupation" usually means a job or profession, it can also refer to everyday activities that let us live independently and bring meaning to our lives. Taking part in meaningful activities can have a positive influence on your health and overall wellbeing.

You might not think about these daily activities until they’re hard to do. Finding ways for you to do them is what occupational therapists are concerned with. You may also hear them called “OTs,” for short.

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Occupational therapists are health care professionals who work with people of all ages with various health issues. They work to adapt surroundings and tasks to help people live better with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses. They work in many different settings such as clinics, hospitals, and nursing facilities. 

Education and Training

Occupational therapists have a Master's degree in occupational therapy. Some may also have a doctorate. A Master's degree takes two to three years to finish, and a doctoral degree about 3.5 years. Both programs require fieldwork, with Master's students doing a minimum of 24 weeks full-time fieldwork. Doctoral students have additional fieldwork of at least 14 weeks.

They have to pass an examination by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy in order to obtain a license in their state, and continue education courses every year to keep their license current.

Some may have a board or specialty certification from the American Occupational Therapy Association, such as in pediatrics, gerontology, mental health, and physical rehabilitation.

Reasons to See an Occupational Therapist

There are many reasons to see occupational therapists. If a health condition, accident, injury, or disease has made it hard for you to take part in daily activities, occupational therapy may help you recover and maintain skills for everyday life. 

Occupational Therapy for Children

Children’s everyday activities include playing, learning, and socializing. 

Children with specific challenges often need occupational therapy. Therapists work with children with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), physical disabilities, sensory processing issues, and more.

Occupational therapy can help children: 

  • Interact with others
  • Learn self-care, such as getting dressed
  • Develop routines at home or at school
  • Hit developmental milestones.

Physical Disabilities

People with disabilities or those recovering from injury or illness sometimes need help to restart their daily activities. When someone has a new health condition, there can be many questions about to adapt at home and in other settings. Those issues sometimes also come up with aging.

Some health conditions occupational therapists help with include: 

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Arthritis
  • Chronic pain
  • Stroke
  • Brain injury

An occupational therapist can provide help in many different ways. For example, they could: 

  • Suggest ways to make your home safer
  • Train caregivers 
  • Teach you how to use assistive technology
  • Help you take on tasks differently

Mental Health

Some occupational therapists are involved in the care of people with mental health problems who want help with planning and organization, developing productive routines, solving problems, and more. 

What to Expect From the Occupational Therapist

When you go to an occupational therapist, they'll talk with you about your needs and goals. They'll do tests to find out your strengths and challenges, then come up with a plan to reach your goals. This will include exercises and activities to strengthen your skills. 

An occupational therapist can also recommend equipment to help you adapt, and teach you how to use it. They can give advice to your family and caregivers. If needed, they can visit your home, school, or work site to make recommendations. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Occupational Therapist Association: "Alzheimer's Disease Tip Sheet," "Answers to Your Fieldwork Questions," "AOTA's Advanced Certification Program," "Learn About Occupational Therapy for Adults," "Learn About Occupational Therapy for Children & Youth,"

"Patients & Clients: Learn About Occupational Therapy," "The Role of Occupational Therapy in Stroke Rehabilitation,"  "What Is Occupational Therapy?"

British Journal of Occupational Therapy:  "Reviewing the theory and practice of occupational therapy in mental health rehabilitation."

Bureau of Labor Statistics: "Occupational Therapists."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Occupational Therapy," "Occupational Therapy for Mental Health."

Occupational Therapy: "Outcomes of a Pilot Occupational Therapy Wellness Program for Older Adults."

The American Journal of Occupational Therapy: "Parent Perspectives of Occupational Therapy Using a Sensory Integration Approach."

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