The Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy


It’s easy to get confused over the differences between physical therapy and occupational therapy. Part of the reason for this is because there’s a lot of overlap between the two. For example, both physical and occupational therapists are trained extensively in anatomy and the musculoskeletal system. Both are an integral part of patient rehabilitation. And both are also responsible for educating patients about how to avoid further injury during the rehabilitation process – and beyond.  

So what are the differences between physical therapy and occupational therapy? 

At Bella Vista Health Center, we get calls from people all over San Diego who want to know exactly that. Below, we’ve put together a hypothetical story about a patient named Jim whose successful recovery includes both physical and occupational therapy. 

Jim’s Story

Meet Jim.  He has just had his hip replaced.  Jim’s doctor ordered both physical therapy and occupational therapy following the surgery. 

The physical therapist (PT)

A physical therapist helps to evaluate and diagnose movement dysfunctions. She’ll treat the physical source of the problem and recommend specific exercises to help align bones and joints to increase mobility and lessen pain.  She’ll also recommend assistive medical devices. 

Jim’s physical therapist is Janet. Janet teaches Jim to safely transition from lying down to sitting up to standing. She also teaches him how to walk with his walker and, later, to transition to crutches. During the recovery process, Janet does stair training with Jim and educates him on bed and chair exercises he can do to strengthen his body and help facilitate the healing process. Before Jim is discharged from the hospital, Janet talks to him about movement cautions he needs to maintain while he gets his strength back. 

The occupational therapist (OT) 

An occupational therapist helps improve functional ability and quality of life by teaching the patient how to complete tasks while impaired. He’s also trained to modify the physical environment and present customized interventions and adaptive tools to help the patient carry out daily tasks. 

Jim’s occupational therapist is Jack. Jack reinforces many of Janet’s instructions on proper seating position and safe techniques of transferring from walker to chair or bed or bath, and so on. In addition, Jack also provides Jim with a dressing stick, a sock aid, and shoehorn to help him dress without bending from the waist. Jack does an on-site visit at Jim’s home to assist with moving furniture around to best suit Jim’s condition. He also helps with the placement of grab bars and toilet risers to help Jim accomplish daily tasks independently. Jack educates Jim on other safety precautions such as carrying hot liquids in covered containers, removing scatter rugs to prevent tripping, and attaching a basket to the walker to carry items from one room to the next. 

The work Jim does with both Janet and Jack are important parts of his recovery.

Today, Jim is as good as new. He lives in Boca Raton.  

Ok, so Jim’s story is hypothetical, but it could easily be true.  Many patients require both physical and occupational therapies to recover from injuries and adapt to impairments. 

At Bella Vista Health Center in Lemon Grove, we know all about it because we see it happen every day.  We watch our physical and occupational therapists light the faces of their patients on a regular basis.  Their combined experience and compassion help to build both strength and confidence during the recovery/adaptation process. 

If you are looking for a home-away-from-home and require occupational or physical therapy (or both), come visit us. Meet our therapists, tour our facilities, and let us help you in every way we can.