Physical therapy and occupational therapy – what’s the difference?

Both professions play important, specialized roles and, in many situations, both are called in to help patients in their recovery.

The focus for both physical and occupational therapists is helping their patients regain lost function and improve the quality of their lives whether it be at home, at school, at work or in their leisure activities.   However, the therapeutic activities that physical and occupational therapists emphasize to achieve these outcomes differ.

Let’s use an example of a gentleman, Mr. Smith, who has sustained a stroke and is being seen by both a physical therapist and an occupational therapist in an inpatient rehabilitation setting.

As a result of the stroke, Mr. Smith is having difficulty performing a number of daily activities.  If he needs a wheelchair to move around, the physical therapist will help Mr. Smith select an appropriate wheelchair and teach him how to use it.  During physical therapy, Mr. Smith will learn how to maneuver around the bed and transfer to different surfaces such as getting in and out of a chair or car and getting up and down from the floor.  The physical therapist will also work with Mr. Smith to help him regain the ability to walk including managing obstacles such as curbs, ramps and stairs using assistive devices as necessary.

During occupational therapy sessions, Mr. Smith will learn how to perform common daily tasks such as bathing, shaving, toileting, and dressing.  If Mr. Smith requires assistance during his meals, the occupational therapist will provide adaptive utensils to help him with feeding.  Occupational therapy places emphasis on using the smaller muscles of the hands and fingers and will work with Mr. Smith to regain control of these fine motor movements for activities such as dialing a telephone or buttoning his shirt.  The occupational therapist will also work with Mr. Smith if he needs help with running a household including cooking, cleaning and paying bills.

It would not be uncommon to see an occupational therapist assisting Mr. Smith to walk, or to see a physical therapist helping Mr. Smith to put on his shirt in this inpatient setting.  However, the occupational and physical therapists are typically doing these activities so Mr. Smith is ready to move on to other activities that are more specific to their respective professions.

Sue Leach, PT, Ph.D., NCS
Assistant Professor



  1. I guess to put it in a simple term, occupational therapy is more into self sufficiency at work using appropriate equipment or home and physical therapy is more into learning correct way to manoeuvre to avoid or reduce the strain of injuries. But both goes hand in hand for the recuperation of the patients.

  2. I seriously didn’t know the difference. I thought they were the exact same thing but now I know. Thank you for such an informative and educational read.

  3. Thank you for your in depth explination on the differences between occupational therapists and physical therapists. It is very easy to confuse the two professions if you don’t work in the medical field or haven’t had to use rely on them due to your own health. Great article.

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