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

Updated: Sep 19

Why the confusion?

There are many times when I’ve had to explain exactly what I do. Oftentimes when I say I am an occupational therapist, someone might ask, “It’s like PT?” or “You help people find jobs?”. This is understandable. OT and PT are two professions that are similar in many ways and because it is difficult for people to plainly 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 to be similar especially in some settings.

Some of the overlap includes:

  • Addressing physical and/or 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 to restore 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 are suffering 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 injury, disability, and pain. OTs main objective is to use occupation-based intervention to address goals, hence the use of the word "occupation" in occupational therapy.

OT enables 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.


OT can work with adults or children with pain, injuries, suffering from illness, and those with or without disabilities depending on their goals. OT offers the expertise on how daily purposeful tasks can be tackled while considering client strengths and barriers that limit or prevent participation.

OT engages people in meaningful occupation-based/daily tasks and continually assess client physical, cognitive, and environmental strengths and limitations. The goal is that through engagement in everyday activities and education, 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 in order 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.

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.

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

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

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