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Should I see a Physical Therapist or an Occupational Therapist?

Updated: Jul 18, 2019

Are you curious about the difference between physical therapy (or physiotherapy) and occupational therapy? It’s a fair question to ask, as the two often get confused.


While physical therapy and occupational therapy share some common ground, they are not identical. Both physical therapists (or physiotherapists) and occupational therapists help patients recover and regain certain abilities after an injury or illness, but they are also very specialized in the way that they accomplish this. As a matter of fact, it’s not uncommon for patients to see both a physical and occupational therapist throughout their healing journey.


Whether you choose to see a PT or OT depends on your situation — your struggles and your goals. So, is physical therapy or occupational therapy right for you? First, let’s talk about what exactly each type of therapy entails.


What is physical therapy?

Physical therapy is arguably the more common and better understood of the two. Physical therapists work with patients to help them regain movement and gross motor function, focusing on the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments in detail. Essentially, they help specific areas of the body perform better, usually after an injury or illness has impaired them in some way.


Physical therapists work with patients to lessen pain, increase mobility and range of motion, and improve strength and balance. They do this by educating patients about the healing process and how to prevent further injuries, as well as with customized treatment plans that typically include exercises, stretches, and other forms of hands-on treatment.


A PT’s primary focus is restorative movement patterns. They assist patients in recovering from and managing physical injuries, potentially reducing the need for medications or surgery, or assisting with recovery post-surgery. While physical therapy takes a whole-body approach and can be used to treat many types of injuries, it is more often used to treat the lower extremities, spine or shoulders.


Physical therapy can be extremely helpful, but because it’s more familiar to most, some forget to consider other options available to them — like occupational therapy.


What is occupational therapy?

While occupational therapy also aims to help people recover from injuries or illnesses, it also goes far beyond the recovery of body mechanics.


Occupational therapists help patients regain their ability to perform the meaningful, daily activities with which they are struggling. This could include home safety equipment or accessibility modifications to enable independence at home after an injury, returning to work planning and support after injury or disability, cognitive strategies after a concussion or brain injury, allowing a young student with disabilities to attend school, assisting a patient with their favourite hobby after an injury, or helping a senior adjust and be able to take care of themselves as their cognitive and physical abilities change over time.

Essentially, OTs help people accomplish the things that they want or need to do through the use of physical supports, hands on rehabilitation, coaching, environmental modification, and more. OTs also know when it’s necessary to refer you to the right people at the right time to prevent rehab burnout and excessive costs that you may not be quite ready to benefit from.


While this includes assisting with fine motor skill problems, OTs can also assist with issues concerning cognitive skills, emotions, memory, behaviours, problem solving, and more. Occupational therapists can work with patients to create helpful routines, develop social skills, and make whatever adjustments necessary to allow them to continue performing the day-to-day tasks that matter to them.


An occupational therapist’s job is to help the patient achieve their goals, and find substitutes for activities that can no longer be performed. They use a holistic approach to help patients adapt to their injury, illness or disability so that they can continue living a normal lifestyle.

Because they assist with day-to-day activities, occupational therapists typically come to the patient at their home, workplace, school, or wherever it is they require assistance. OTs can also assist with functional capacity evaluations (assessing a patient’s ability to safely participate in work and other activities) and life care planning (assessing disability-related costs for current and future needs).


Here are some reasons why one might seek the help of an occupational therapist:

  • Sensory processing disorders

  • Learning disabilities

  • Mental illness or behavioural issues

  • Chronic pain, injuries or illnesses

  • Amputations, prosthetics or paralysis

  • Upper extremity injuries

  • Concussions / head or brain injuries

  • Stroke or heart attack

And anything else that may affect your ability to accomplish everyday activities, from workplace injuries to motor vehicle accidents and more.


There are also many coverage options for occupational therapy in BC, depending on your situation.


Finding an occupational therapist

As you will be working closely with your occupational therapist, it’s important to do your research and ensure that you find the right person for you and your situation.

At SMART Rehab, our experienced team of medical professionals always put you and your needs first. It is our mission to provide the highest quality of services to our community and beyond.


If you’re searching for an occupational therapist in Kamloops or elsewhere in the Thompson Okanagan, or have questions regarding occupational therapy or other forms of physical rehabilitation or medical-legal services, contact SMART Rehab. We would be happy to help!

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