Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy: What’s The Difference?

Updated: Feb 17

Why the confusion?

There are many times when I've had to explain what I do. Often when I say I am an occupational therapist, someone might ask, "It's like PT?" or "You help people find jobs?". The confusion is understandable. OT and PT are two professions that are similar in many ways, and because it is difficult for people to see the differences, they are confused, and the role of OT is not well understood. Additionally, OT and PT interventions can sometimes overlap and appear similar, especially in some settings.

Some of the overlaps include:

  • Addressing physical and developmental limitations

  • Manual therapy

  • The use of physical agent modalities (hot packs, electrical stimulation, paraffin bath, etc.)

  • The use of exercise and prescription

  • Recommendation of assistive devices (orthotics, walker, wheelchair, etc.) or adaptive equipment (sock aid, reacher, etc.)

The main similarity is that both professions have the goal of restoring functional outcomes.

Physical Therapy is a profession that focuses on improving physical function and mobility using physical techniques. Restoring, strengthening, maintaining mobility, and managing pain. PTs generally serve clients who have experienced an injury or suffer from a chronic health issue.

Occupational Therapy, on the other hand, is a profession that focuses on enabling the performance of activities of daily living as independently as possible while considering the injury, disability, and pain. OTs' primary objective is to use occupation-based intervention to address goals, hence using the word "occupation" in occupational therapy.

OT enables the function in the following occupations/daily activities:

- Self-care: grooming, bathing, feeding, etc.

- Managing oneself and others at home and in the community: taking care of one's family, shopping, household tasks, managing one's health, etc.

- Productivity: school, work (employment, volunteer)

- Community participation

- Leisure

- Sleep and rest

Occupational Therapy Practice Framework: Domain and Process, Fourth Edition

BrainWings, LLC| Occupational Therapy & Wellness for Adolescents

occupational therapy

A key difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy is that OT focuses on the whole person - addressing how an individual performs roles and routines that are meaningful to them in their environment. By looking at the components or parts of activities of daily living, OT can also address what’s important to the client, daily demands, habits, and skills needed to attain maximum independence.


Depending on their goals, OTs can work with adults or children experiencing pain, injuries, suffering from illness, and those with or without disabilities. OT offers the expertise for tackling occupational tasks while considering client strengths and barriers that limit or prevent participation.

OT engages people in meaningful occupation-based/daily tasks and continually assesses client physical, cognitive, and environmental strengths and limitations. Through engagement in everyday activities and education, the goal is that the client will develop abilities and be empowered. OT can modify the daily activity or the environment as needed to increase performance, success, and overall quality of life.

Another distinct difference is that OT can work with people in the mental health setting. Clients might be adults or children and can have various diagnoses such as depression, ADHD, anxiety,

mood disorders, etc. Therapists can work on executive function/thinking skills such as planning, organization, time management in addition to addressing social interaction, and stress

management to improve client participation, interaction, and contribution to the community. Children without diagnoses who struggle with completing day-to-day tasks/demands can also benefit from services.

OT can be found in the following settings:

  • Nursing Homes

  • Schools

  • Rehabilitation centers - inpatient and outpatient clinics including vocational rehab

  • Mental Health facilities

  • Hospitals

  • Home health and hospice

  • Driving rehabilitation

  • Home-based services - Early intervention for infants through 3 years

  • Corporate & industrial for ergonomics

  • Health and wellness or community centers

  • Group homes

  • Correctional facilities

Physical Therapy

The main goal of PT is to address issues that limit mobility. PT focuses on the impairment that one has - whether caused by injury, pain, or disability. PTs often use therapeutic exercises during

during intervention. They also incorporate skilled treatment to address coordination, postural

corrections, balance, and gait pattern to help regain function.

Your doctor can determine which therapy you would benefit from and refer you as needed. Frequently individuals are referred to both disciplines and can participate in them concurrently. Sometimes, an individual might start with PT and end with OT.

Either way, it is essential to note the distinct difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy and how the two professions complement each other.