Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy: Key Differences Between Rehabilitation Approaches

When recovering from injury or illness, occupational therapy and physical therapy are often crucial parts of the rehabilitation process. But what exactly do these professions entail, and how do they differ? Here we’ll explore key aspects of each field and compare occupational therapy vs. physical therapy.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) focuses on helping people regain daily living and working skills impacted by injury, disability, or other health conditions. The primary goal is to enhance participation in necessary and meaningful activities of daily life. Key areas an occupational therapist addresses include:


Bathing, eating, dressing, grooming.


Skills for work, household duties, parenting


Hobbies, sports, social participation.

Cognitive Skills:

Attention, memory, problem-solving, visual processing.

OTs use customized interventions and adaptive techniques to help patients adapt and safely perform daily activities. With conditions like stroke, spinal cord injuries, autism, and dementia, OTs play a critical role in rehabilitation and long-term independence.

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy

While occupational and physical therapy are distinct healthcare professions, they work closely together in rehabilitation settings. Here are some key ways OT differs from physical therapy (PT).


OT focuses more holistically on performing daily activities while PT targets improving mobility and physical function.


OT aims to develop skills needed for daily living whereas PT goals involve improving strength, range of motion, and balance.

Adaptive Equipment:

OTs frequently incorporate adaptive devices like grab bars, shower seats, and reaching aids into treatment plans to facilitate clients’ independence. These are not used as heavily in PT.


OT addresses cognitive skills needed for functional tasks. PT does not focus on cognition as central to treatment.

Occupational therapy takes a functional, activity-based approach to rehabilitation while physical therapy is more anatomically focused on physical improvement. The two complement each other in maximizing recovery.

Performance Physical Therapy

Performance physical therapy represents one branch of PT practice with a strong focus on sports medicine and helping athletic patients optimize function. Key aspects include:

§  Preventing sports injuries through proper strength training, warm-ups, and taping methods.

§  Rehabilitating orthopedic injuries to safely return patients to sports participation.

§  Improving athletic performance using techniques to increase power, balance, agility, and endurance.

§  Using manual techniques including massage, joint mobilization, and soft tissue work to treat pain and dysfunction.

§  Collaborating with coaches, athletic trainers, and other sports medicine staff for comprehensive care.

Performance physical therapists have specialized skills in biomechanics, exercise physiology, movement analysis, and strengthening programs tailored to athletes. This allows them to fill a unique niche in sports medicine clinics and training facilities.

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Occupational therapists support patients across a wide spectrum of disabilities, medical conditions, and age groups. Responsibilities include:

§  Evaluating patients’ current ability to perform daily activities and identifying barriers to independence.

§  Developing treatment plans with customized interventions focused on restoring or adapting key skills.

§  Incorporating activities like cooking, shopping, work tasks, and hobbies into therapy.

§  Teaching adaptive techniques like one-handed dressing, stabilizing aids for walking, and compensatory strategies.

§  Modifying homes and workplaces with grab bars, chair lifts, or other adaptive equipment.

§  Collaborating with other rehabilitation professionals, caregivers, and community programs.

§  Recommending appropriate wheelchairs, walkers, braces, or communication devices if needed.

§  Discharging patients with home exercise programs and resources to facilitate an optimal transition home.

Occupational therapists partner closely with patients to enhance participation in daily life activities. Through meaningful therapeutic activities, adaptive techniques, customized equipment, and coaching, OTs empower individuals facing disability or injury to regain independence.

Collaboration and Synergy

Although occupational therapy and physical therapy have distinct scopes, they often intersect in practice, leading to collaborative efforts that amplify the overall impact of patient care.

Holistic Approach:

The holistic approach of occupational therapy complements the physical rehabilitation efforts of physical therapy. OT practitioners address psychosocial aspects that can influence a person’s motivation and adherence to their physical therapy regimen.

Transitional Care:

In situations where patients are transitioning from a hospital setting to a home or a rehabilitation facility, occupational therapists can play a vital role in ensuring a seamless return to daily life by assessing and addressing challenges in the patient’s living environment.

Stroke Rehabilitation:

Physical therapists focus on improving a stroke patient’s mobility, while occupational therapists help them regain essential skills for independent living, such as dressing, grooming, and cooking.

Pediatric Care:

For children with developmental delays or disabilities, the collaboration between occupational and physical therapists can yield comprehensive intervention strategies that address both motor skills and the ability to participate in age-appropriate activities.


Occupational therapy and physical therapy are distinct yet interconnected fields that contribute significantly to the well-being of individuals recovering from injuries, illnesses, or disabilities. While physical therapy emphasizes restoring physical function and mobility, occupational therapy focuses on enabling meaningful participation in daily activities. The synergy between these two disciplines exemplifies the comprehensive approach to rehabilitation, providing patients with a higher chance of regaining independence, enhancing their overall quality of life, and achieving their maximum potential.