What is the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy?

what-is-the-difference-between-physical-therapy-and-occupational-therapyPhysical therapists and occupational therapists are both credited with assisting injured or physically disabled people. However,  there is a distinct difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy.

Contributing to the demand for skilled professionals in both career fields are factors like:

  • an aging population
  • children born with disabilities
  • an increase in sports related injuries among all age groups and athletic skill levels

Here are some of the functional differences:

  • between physical and occupational therapists
  • the academic and professional preparation that is needed to perform in each job
  • the projected outlook for employment for both career fields.

Functions of Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists

Physical therapists evaluate and treat patients who are disabled due to an:

  • injury
  • illness
  • medical procedure

Their primary job is to help patients to regain the full use of their limbs. The treatments that physical therapists prescribe are also designed to:

  • lessen pain in their patients
  • prevent them from developing permanent disabilities
  • strengthen them so that they can perform every day personal care activities

Physical therapy treatments are scientifically based and rely on the practitioner’s knowledge of human anatomy and kinesiology.

The goal of physical therapists is to help patients to become fully mobile. The goal of occupational therapists is to help patients to live actively even while they are disabled. People with more serious disabilities often cannot perform daily tasks like:

  • personal care
  • cooking
  • household chores
  • paid employment

Occupational therapists teach techniques so that these clients can overcome the obstacles that stand between them and independent living. An occupational therapist works with other healthcare practitioners like physical therapists and medical doctors. They help accurately assess the physical conditions of their patients. Subsequently, they help these patients set appropriate goals relating to the performance of daily living tasks. Occupational therapists prescribe activities that help patients achieve their goals. These activities can address the physical, emotional and cognitive issues that may be holding patients back from leading normal, active lives.

Education, Training and Professional Licenses

The education and training requirements for physical therapists are heavily science based. For example, many physical therapists earn undergraduate degrees in biology or kinesiology to prepare themselves for doctorate programs in physical therapy. In order to practice physical therapy, therapists must have professional degrees in physical therapy. They must be licensed by the state in which they plan to practice. Board certification through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties is optional, but the credential opens up more job opportunities for the therapists.

The education and training requirements for occupational therapists are similar to those of physical therapists. Some common undergraduate academic majors for aspiring occupational therapists are:

  • kinesiology
  • sociology
  • biology

Occupational therapists must be licensed by the state in which they plan to practice. One of the prerequisites for licensing is a graduate degree in occupational therapy from an accredited university.

Employment Overview for Physical and Occupational Therapists

Job opportunities for physical therapists are fantastic according surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The profession requires challenging and lengthy academic course loads. Physical therapists enjoyed median annual salaries of $79,860 in 2012, and the projected job growth rate is 36 percent, which is much faster than the average for all jobs surveyed. Alternately, occupational therapists earned annual median salaries of $75,400 in 2012, and the projected job growth rate for their profession is 29 percent. This is still much faster than the average rate for all jobs surveyed.


When a person becomes disabled, they often require the services of both physical and occupational therapists. Someone who has temporary injuries relies heavily on physical therapy to regain normal bodily functions. Those who have more permanent disabilities need the help of occupational therapists to remain active while disabled.

Both professions provide hope to disabled people. The real difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy is the outcome of their work.