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The Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy (and Speech Therapy)

Often times, those who have suffered from an injury, accident, or a chronic condition will need weeks or months of care to recover and adapt to their new circumstances. The medical professionals who specialize in providing that long-term care are therapists. With the latest equipment and training, therapists can help guarantee the fastest possible recovery time, the lowest chance of additional complications, and the highest quality of life possible for those in their care. Knowing which therapist to see can be tricky, so we’re going to explain the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy (and speech therapy).

Occupational Therapy

Anytime you’re afflicted by an injury, disability, illness, or another condition that may affect your ability to complete day-to-day activities, an occupational therapist can help you adapt to those circumstances in order to maintain your quality of life. This often involves redesigning tasks that may have become difficult, including homemaking skills, cooking, grooming, dressing, and a variety of other common activities. Occupational therapists can also provide the therapy necessary to help alleviate the stress and emotional trauma of adjusting to these changes in lifestyle.

The types of people who can use occupational therapy vary widely. Occupational therapy for the elderly is used to help them face the challenges of aging. It’s also used to help children who may suffer developmental difficulties, or even to help a spouse cope with a progressive disease. Essentially, anytime someone can’t do the things they want or need to do in life, an occupational therapist is there to help.

Physical Therapy

The main difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy is that a physical therapist is principally concerned with treating the source of an injury, as opposed to managing the fallout resulting from that injury. They’re specifically trained to evaluate and treat ailments affecting the muscular, skeletal, and nervous system.

Using a variety of techniques, including ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and hands-on treatment, they work to help patients recover from their condition while simultaneously working to prevent re-injury during rehabilitation. For example, when a physical therapist works with someone who has broken their leg, their primary goal is to recover their mobility and range of motion, while also ensuring a rapid recovery. By contrast, an occupational therapist would be more concerned with helping that individual learn to adapt to living with a broken bone for an extended period of time.

Physical therapy is used in a wide variety of settings. Injured athletes use physical therapists to rehabilitate their performance. Those suffering from neurological conditions like Parkinson’s may use physical therapy to help maintain their motor function. Orthopedic doctors often use them to help people recover from skeletal injuries. Applied to geriatrics, physical therapists are often employed to help improve balance and prevent falls.

Speech Therapy

Like the name suggests, a speech therapist provides support for a variety of speech and language issues. Natural aging can result in a variety of illnesses, neurological difficulties, and many problems with the body’s most basic processes, including swallowing.  A speech therapist’s is trained to help their patients improve their ability to communicate and eat.

Because the ability to communicate with your loved ones and swallow food safely is essential to maintaining a high quality of life, speech therapists are among the most important specialists available to the elderly. They’re often used following a stroke, infection, brain injury, lung disease, or similar condition.

This type of therapist also can provide treatment for a variety of cognitive-linguistic impairments. Where physical therapists would help an individual learn to walk again after suffering leg trauma, a speech language therapist might help someone overcome a cognitive impairment by helping them break down a task to make it more manageable, re-learn how to use speech muscles, and ultimately overcome a speech deficit. To that end, speech therapy is used by adults who may have been afflicted by conditions like motor neuron diseases, Alzheimer’s, dementia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, a brain injury, stroke, and many others.

Therapy for Everyone

Medical rehabilitation has become a highly individualized process. Just as there are doctors specifically for the foot, eye, bones, and so on, there are therapists who train to become specialists for incredibly specific areas of medicine. Very often, speech and occupational therapy, or occupational and physical therapy, can be used in combination to provide the best possible care. Thankfully, with the right specialists on the job, you can treat nearly every aspect of an ailment, from the underlying physical cause to the difficulty of coping with changes in lifestyle.

*This post was updated to include information regarding speech therapy.

Have you or a loved one sought the aid of a physical therapist? How were they able to help with the rehabilitation process? Let us know your story in the comments below.