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What Is the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

What Is the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

As we age, many common activities we once took for granted can become more troublesome. Strength wanes, joints stiffen, balance can become more precarious. These hurdles affect daily routines and can affect our quality of life. It’s especially true following an injury, surgery or other medical event.

For seniors who encounter unexpected obstacles to full independence, there’s good news: physical therapy and occupational therapy are specialized treatments that can help you regain important degrees of independence. But informal polls suggest many people who need these remedies don’t know the difference between therapies or which is right for their particular situation.

Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy

To help you understand the differences between the two therapies, let’s start with simple definitions:

Physical therapy for senior citizens addresses problems focused on specific anatomical areas to improve body movement.
Occupational therapy for senior citizens is more holistic. It treats the entire body to help improve one’s overall daily living experience.

For the layperson, it’s a subtle difference. But when choosing between occupational therapy and physical therapy, it might help to think of it like this: Physical therapists help people return to as close to 100% functioning as possible. On the other hand, occupational therapists work with people to help them feel able-bodied and perform daily tasks with the physical limitations they have.

Image of a senior woman using colored pencils to draw

Who needs physical and occupational therapies?

Most therapy needs arise as a result of minor or major injury, surgery, illness, or simply the “symptoms” of aging. Depending on the situation, physical therapy for seniors may include a combination of techniques including stretching, walking, massage, hydrotherapy and electrical stimulation, among others. The immediate goal is to relieve pain if there is any. The long-term goal is to improve strength, flexibility, mobility or balance, thereby regaining as much independence as possible.

Physical therapy is often prescribed for the following situations:

  • Recovering from injuries such as a broken bone or injured joint
  • Back pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Pain in all parts of the body, such as knee, back, shoulder, wrist, etc.
  • Diabetes
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Stroke
  • Vertigo
  • Incontinence
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Cerebral palsy

Most people understand physical therapy, but what is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy for seniors looks beyond the anatomical symptoms and attempts to discover any underlying issues that may be having a negative effect on the senior’s life. The therapist then creates customized treatments to help this person overcome the physical limitations.

How physical and occupational therapy work together.

Despite the differences, confusion seems to stem from the fact that there’s some overlap.

Let’s examine the following true scenario:

Mary Ann, 70 years old, was walking her dog when she tripped over a crack in the sidewalk. She landed on her elbow and suffered a broken bone. Surgery was performed and a metal plate was inserted, then she wore a cast for 4 weeks. Understandably, when the cast was removed, Mary’s arm was stiff and weakened, and she experienced pain when she tried to bend her elbow.

Her doctor prescribed physical therapy. Together, Mary and her physical therapist worked to reduce post-surgical pain, rebuild atrophied muscles to gain strength, and regain as much range of motion as possible.

Physical therapy went well, and many strengthening and flexibility goals were achieved. And yet, Mary still struggled with some routine activities. After a broken elbow, it was difficult to dress, bathe, brush her teeth, and even bring a fork to her mouth.

Her doctor suggested she transition to an occupational therapist. This specialized professional devised techniques for Mary to more easily perform common tasks and maintain a high quality of independence.

While a broken elbow can have lasting, even lifelong, effects, Mary’s combination of physical and occupational therapies addressed both the anatomical and lifestyle effects of her injury. And over time, she recovered from her injury to live a fully independent life.

How and where to find physical and occupational therapies.

Most often, these treatments are prescribed by a doctor, who will refer you to a clinic in your area or to the provider of your choice. If you’re a senior in Essex, Connecticut, the highly rated Health Center at Essex Meadows may be the best option. The Health Center continually achieves a 5-Star CMS* rating, offers professional physical, occupational, and speech therapies with the highest levels of hospitality.

To learn more about our therapy services, contact us here.

*The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services evaluates communities in areas including health inspections, Staffing and overall quality.