Occupational Therapy Versus Physical Therapy

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on July 03, 2023
3 min read

Occupational therapists (OTs) and physical therapists (PTs) work to improve people's lives. The fields are related and have many similarities, but they are different in focus and scope.

Many people aren’t familiar with occupational therapy, partly because the name is misleading. It sounds as if it has something to do with careers, but occupational therapists help people with the wide variety of tasks that "occupy" their lives. This may include work with babies who are far too young for jobs and with older people who are long retired.

When a person's physical or mental abilities change, an occupational therapist can help them get back to work. But occupational therapists also treat the whole person. They may help with self-care routines, social interactions, and leisure activities.

In the United States, occupational therapists must have a master's degree and be licensed by their state. In 2019, about 143,300 people worked as occupational therapists.

Physical therapists are often described as "movement experts." They can help people who want to improve their fitness and their overall wellness.

Physical therapists help people get moving again after an injury or an illness. They also offer ways to prevent injuries, avoid surgeries, and get off pain medication

In the United States, physical therapists need a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree, which usually takes 3 years to earn. Besides studying aspects of biology, such as anatomy, neuroscience, and kinesiology, PTs study topics such as communications, finance, and ethics. They must be licensed by their state.

In 2019, there were about 258,200 physical therapists in the United States. 

Occupational therapy and physical therapy have some things in common.

Treatment plans. OTs and PTs evaluate clients and offer custom care plans. They monitor progress and change treatment plans when needed.

Conditions treated. Both treat a wide variety of conditions, including:

Support team. Both work with family members and caregivers so that their clients get the support they need.

Client base. OTs and PTs treat people with medical issues in all stages of life, from infancy to old age.

Settings of practice. OTs and PTs practice in clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes. Both may provide care in people's homes through home health services. OTs also work in schools.  

The main difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy is the scope. Physical therapists usually focus on helping people move better.   

On the other hand, occupational therapists take a holistic approach. Besides improving physical functioning, OTs work on many kinds of social, emotional, and work-related situations.    

One example of the difference would be someone who wants to go grocery shopping. 

A physical therapist would focus on what the person physically needs to do to get through a large store. This could include getting in and out of the car and traveling up and down the aisles. An occupational therapist might help with tasks like making a list, finding items, and handling checkout.  

Occupational and physical therapists can be specialists. Occupational therapists can specialize in six core areas:

Physical therapists can become board-certified in one of 10 areas:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary (heart and lungs)‌
  • Clinical electrophysiology (treatments using electricity)
  • Geriatrics (conditions associated with aging)
  • Neurology (brain and nervous system)
  • Oncology ( cancer treatment)
  • Orthopedics (bones and muscles)
  • Pediatrics (treatment of children)
  • Sports
  • Women's health
  • Wound management

Your doctor will usually recommend occupational therapy or physical therapy. Some people get both at the same time. Ideally, in such cases, the PT and OT work as a team.

If you think occupational therapy or physical therapy would help you, you can ask your doctor for a prescription. You can also get some therapy services without going through a doctor, but the process differs from state to state.