What Is Occupational Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on September 25, 2023
7 min read

Occupational therapy helps you when you have trouble doing daily activities because of an injury, a health issue like a stroke, or a chronic medical condition. It teaches you the skills you need to live independently and perform everyday tasks more easily and with less pain.

An occupational therapy program can help give you the ability to readapt and use tools (assistive devices) at work, school, and home.

It can help you do specific things like:

  • Eat without help from others
  • Take part in leisure activities
  • Do office work
  • Bathe and get dressed
  • Do laundry or clean up around the house

An occupational therapist (OT) is a health care provider who helps people learn or regain skills of daily living after a change in ability. OTs work with adults and children who have challenges with everyday tasks like bathing, dressing, walking, going to school, and working.

Some OTs work in hospitals, clinics, or rehabilitation centers. Others travel to their patients' homes or offices.

How long does it take to be an occupational therapist?

OTs are highly trained. A master's degree in occupational therapy is required to practice, and they also need a license to work in their state.

Some OTs specialize in certain conditions or types of therapy, like hand or vision therapy or pediatric occupational therapy.

Pediatric occupational therapist

A pediatric OT works with children who have physical or mental challenges. They help kids develop or regain the skills they need to succeed in school, sports, and other activities. The goal is to help kids reach their developmental milestones and become more independent.

Pediatric OTs are certified in occupational therapy. They also specialize in child development. You'll find these therapists in hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, and schools. Some pediatric OTs visit their patients' homes.

Occupational therapy vs. physical therapy

Occupational therapy and physical therapy both aim to increase your independence. The difference is that occupational therapy helps with your activities of daily life, while physical therapy helps you move more easily and manage pain.

An OT teaches you skills to help you adapt to changes in your abilities. They might show you how to use tools like a walker, reach extender, or pencil grip. The goal of the therapy is to make you more independent.

A physical therapist works on your motor skills. You might see one of these health care providers after you've had an injury or illness that affected your movement. They focus on exercises and hands-on techniques to improve your mobility and reduce pain. Sometimes, physical therapy can help you avoid or delay treatments like medication or surgery.

Your OT will first go over your medical history and watch you perform certain tasks to evaluate your needs. They'll also come to your home, school, and workplace to see what changes might improve your accessibility and safety.

Then, the OT will work with you to come up with a therapy plan and set goals based on your needs, abilities, and limits.

The therapist will teach you new ways to do daily tasks like getting dressed, eating, showering, and working. OTs can also recommend special equipment and assistive devices like a raised toilet seat, leg brace, or wheelchair and show you how to use those tools.

OTs can also help in other ways. For example, they may:

  • Move furniture to make your space easier to navigate and prevent falls
  • Educate your family about how to help care for you
  • Show you exercises to relieve aches and pains
  • Organize your medications
  • Address behavior problems in kids

After they look at how you do different kinds of activities, your OT will come up with a plan to make those things easier or less painful.

They can also teach family members and friends how to help.

Daily activities

Your OT can teach you new ways to:

  • Button a shirt or tie your shoes
  • Get in and out of the shower or bath
  • Work at your computer
  • Eat without help
  • Do laundry or clean up around the house
  • Improve your hand-eye coordination so you can do things like hit a tennis ball

Adaptive equipment

The therapist may teach you how to use tools like these to make life easier and safer:

  • Walker, wheelchair, and other mobility aids
  • Leg braces
  • Large-handled or weighted utensils
  • Special computer keyboards
  • Long-handled shoehorn
  • Grabbers to reach things on high shelves

Home safety

The therapist can recommend changes like these to prevent falls and other injuries in your home and office:

  • Improve lighting
  • Remove clutter and other fall hazards
  • Tape down the edges of rugs
  • Install nonslip surfaces on stairs and in the shower and bath
  • Put grab bars and raised toilet seats in the bathroom
  • Widen doorways to fit a walker or wheelchair
  • Install adjustable shelves and closet rods to make them easier to reach

Caregiver training

An OT can also teach family members caregiving skills, including how to:

  • Feed, dress, and bathe their loved one
  • Safely move the person in and out of bed
  • Prevent falls
  • Manage medications
  • Improve safety in the home
  • Use adaptive tools and equipment
  • Communicate more effectively
  • Find help so they don't get burned out

Some OTs have extra education in:

  • Mental health
  • Pediatrics (children's care)
  • Gerontology (care for older adults)
  • Rehabilitation

OTs can also have special certification from the American Occupational Therapy Association in one or more of these areas:

  • Assistive technologies such as wheelchairs
  • Aquatic (water) exercise
  • Conditions like autism, brain injuries, or diabetes
  • Finding transportation when people can no longer drive
  • Making changes to the home or work environment to improve safety
  • Eating and swallowing
  • Low vision
  • Physical rehabilitation

Occupational therapy is for children or adults who have trouble with daily activities. Reasons to get this type of therapy include problems with thinking skills, movement, fine motor skills, balance, or coordination.

Anyone with these issues can likely benefit from occupational therapy:

  • Arthritis and chronic pain
  • Stroke
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Joint replacement
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Low vision
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Poor balance
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Mental health or behavior issues

People with permanent disabilities

You may benefit from occupational therapy if you need help with daily tasks because of a condition like multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy. The OT can teach you new ways to work around your affected body part(s) when you perform daily tasks.

Therapists also teach people with disabilities how to use devices like:

  • Speech tools to improve communication
  • Leg braces, walkers, and wheelchairs to improve movement and independence
  • Large-grip utensils and other devices to eat without help

Children in schools

Some OTs work with children who have physical, speech, learning, or movement disorders. The therapist will evaluate your child to learn which areas they need the most help. Then they'll work with your child's teachers and doctors to come up with a therapy plan.

Other things an OT can do for your child in school include:

  • Adapt activities and tasks to fit your child's abilities.
  • Recommend assistive devices like large-grip pencils or special computer keyboards.
  • Suggest changes to make the classroom more accessible.
  • Help your child get organized and turn in assignments on time.
  • Make sure your child has enough time to do homework and finish tests.

Older adults

Aging can affect vision, hearing, and balance in ways that increase the risk for injuries. Older adults are more likely to have chronic diseases like dementia and arthritis that affect their thinking and movement.

OTs work with older adults to help them:

  • Get in and out of the bath and shower without falling
  • Dress themselves when their fingers are stiff and sore
  • Prevent falls
  • Install and use devices like a raised toilet seat, bath chair, and pill organizer
  • Do exercises to improve strength and hand-eye coordination

Other reasons to get occupational therapy

Here are a few other reasons why you might need occupational therapy:

  • To regain movement and other skills you've lost after a stroke or joint replacement surgery
  • To learn relaxation techniques and other strategies to cope with pain
  • During treatment for cancer, to help you conserve energy and still do many of the activities you enjoy
  • After a brain injury, to recover speech or memory
  • If you have a mental illness, to learn coping skills and get back to doing the activities you love

It can also help kids with ADHD, juvenile arthritis, and autism.

Your therapist may come to your home, workplace, or school to create a treatment plan. OTs also work in many places like these:

  • Hospitals
  • Rehab centers
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Nursing or assisted living homes
  • Schools
  • Private practice offices
  • Prisons
  • Corporate offices
  • Industrial workplaces

Occupational therapy helps children and adults learn how to do everyday tasks they have trouble with because of an injury or health issue. It's not the same as physical therapy, which focuses on your muscles. It helps you maintain independence by fine-tuning all of your life skills.

  • Why does a child with autism need occupational therapy?

Many children on the autism spectrum have sensory challenges, meaning they have problems processing sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Occupational therapy can help teach them ways to better handle things like sensory overload.

Other ways a child on the autism spectrum can benefit from occupational therapy might include:

  • Learning boundaries and personal space
  • How to do daily skills like brushing teeth, bathing, or dressing
  • Creating schedules
  • Systems for safety awareness
  • Increasing foods for picky eaters