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Diagnosing the differences between PT and OT

The body is a complex organism that is the sum of all its parts. When a portion of the body is not working optimally, pain, lack of motion and a host of other concerns can arise. At some point in their lives, many people will visit therapists to restore functionality to a part of their body that was affected by injury.

Therapists come in various types, including physical therapists, or PTs, and occupational therapists, or OTs. Some may not understand what distinguishes a PT from an OT. Although physical therapy and occupational therapy are sometimes used interchangeably, they are actually two different, but similar, disciplines.

According to St. Catherine University, PT involves treating the actual impairment, while OT helps the patient complete necessary tasks with the impairment. To break this down even further, consider the following scenario: An athlete stumbles on the field, injuring his knee in the process. While the injury does not require surgery, it is severe enough for bracing and requires that the athlete not apply pressure through walking. He visits a PT to help determine which kinds of assistive devices might remedy the situation as well as which exercises and stretches can work the knee safely so that it remains limber while healing. The OT instructs the athlete on the proper way to use crutches, canes or a wheelchair while the knee remains immobile. The OT also can illustrate how to get in and out of the shower or walk up and down stairs with the adaptive devices.

While PT may be focused on treating the injury itself, OT is more likely to help the patient adapt to home and work environments to allow for a better quality of life and help the injured person maintain his or her independence. Some OTs will do on-site assessments and help with those modifications.

Despite their differences, PT and OT do overlap, and some therapists may work together to make sure there’s a seamless integration of practices. Both PTs and OTs are involved in injury recovery or in assisting individuals with life-long disabilities enjoy the highest quality of life.

Both professions require meeting high education standards with knowledge of physical anatomy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, some entry-level occupational and physical therapists hold master's degrees, but a vast majority of these positions require a doctoral degree in the respective field. However, the schooling required can be worth it, as both fields are expected to grow considerably in the coming decades.

Physical therapists and occupational therapists can help people feel better faster and help injury sufferers maintain their independence through an injury or disability.