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What is Occupational Therapy? Everything You Need to Know

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Occupational therapy enables individuals of any age or ability, to engage in the activities (occupations) that are important to them to live a meaningful life.


Let’s Break That Down

Who Do Occupational Therapists Work With?

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Why is it Called Occupational Therapy?

Where do Occupational Therapists Work?

Occupational Therapist vs Physical Therapist

In Conclusion:


Who Do Occupational Therapists Work With?

An OT can help ANYONE – of any age and with any disability, injury, or level of functioning.

Occupational therapists have been educated on nearly every combination of age and disability

For example:

  • Premature baby with down syndrome

  • Age 42 with multiple sclerosis

  • Age 50 post knee replacement

  • Age 17 with cerebral palsy

  • Age 23 with depression

  • Age 5 with ADHD

  • Age 70 post stroke

  • Age 60 post traumatic brain injury



However, when seeking an OT, you will want to search for one who has experience with your particular ailment.




What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Occupational therapists help a person engage in a life that is meaningful to them.

So… If it is important to my client to:


  • be able to cook her breakfast each morning

  • sign his name on his rent check each month

  • sit through a class without getting distracted

  • entertain a friend without needing help

then that is what I will be working on with them.



We will plan out modifications and find the optimal way to make these tasks manageable and enjoyable again.

The therapeutic priority is determined by what is most important to the client.


How Does An Occupational Therapist Help?

Occupational therapists have the ability and training to think outside the box. We are creative, innovative, and we believe that anything is possible.

We believe that ANYONE can live a life that is worth living.


Here is the general process:

  1. Evaluation We are going to assess - where the patient is at physically, emotionally, and socially, etc. - what his/her goals are - collect necessary information (such as what a current typical day for the patient is, as well as what an ideal day would look like)

  2. Intervention Here is where we will work on the goals – attending to every detail or component necessary in helping the client become as independent and possible in their everyday life.

  3. Targeting of Outcomes Goal planning and frequent assessment is important to us. We are always reassessing to make sure that the goals we are working on are important to the patient, that we are getting closer to helping him/her reach their goal, and that all parts of the treatment team (family, teachers, caregivers, and other rehab professionals, etc.) are on the same page.

Here’s how we make things happen:


OTs are masters of activity analysis.

When an occupational therapist is helping a patient learn to sit up in bed again following a below-knee amputation, he/she will break down the task (that may seem simple to others) into detailed parts.

Every activity/task involves a combination of even smaller fragments.

See, for this patient to be able to sit up in bed efficiently and without harm, he/she must:

- have substantial strength in specific muscles and muscle groups, for example, the arms to support oneself and the trunk, abdominals, and hips to hinge forward (We get even more detailed to identify exactly which muscles.)


- be nourished properly - as circumstances like low blood pressure will cause dizziness upon changing to an upright posture


- have his/her proprioceptive system activated and ready to learn a new way to balance (losing a part of one’s leg – or even just one big toe! - throws off more than you can imagine)


- if one is a glasses wearer, it’s important that glasses be on, etc.

We will ensure that each part of every meaningful task is being attended to together with the patient or by the correlating professional until the patient is successful.


Why is it called Occupational Therapy?


I feel like the name of our profession confuses people quite often.

They say “So you help people with their work?” or “Maybe you can help me find a job…”

Occupations are simply activities, routines, and habits that occupy our time.

We define occupations by categorizing them under the 8 Areas of Occupation listed in the OTPF (Occupational Therapy Practice Framework) – the OT “bible”:




Where do Occupational Therapists Work?


Being that occupational therapy is such a versatile job, you can find OTs in a large range of settings.

Often, we will work in a patient’s natural environment, since that is the best place to practice meaningful activities in their lives such as patient homes and schools/daycares.

However, we can be found in many more places such as clinics, rehab facilities, and almost every ward of the hospital.

We can be even more creative too, though, since the brain needs to get used to performing tasks in a variety of environments and circumstances.

For example, there are wilderness OTs, occupational therapists that specialize in driving rehabilitation, and OTs that go to workplaces and factories to identify damaging task performance, create modifications, and educate workers on proper body mechanics to prevent injury.


Occupational Therapist vs Physical Therapist


Some think “OT’s work on the hands and PTs work on the feet” or “A PT can do anything an OT can do.” – Both very wrong

The simple difference between OT and PT is:

Physical Therapy – focuses on helping individuals improve movement and manage pain

Occupational Therapy – focuses on enabling people to participate in the occupations that are meaningful to them

Sometimes, it may seem like both PT and OT are focusing on the same goals:

For example, both OT and PT would focus on improving muscle strength

However, their goals are stemming from different places.


The PT is helping the patient be able to be more mobile and walk 12 feet, whereas an OT would focus on improving muscle strength, overcoming obstacles, and creating accommodations so that the patient can comfortably walk from his bed to bathroom and easily stand long enough to brush his teeth independently.

In many cases, a combination of occupational and physical therapy is essential to bring a person to an optimal level of functioning as we work in synergy.


In Conclusion:


Occupational therapy is truly fascinating! It can help such a wide variety of people.

I am so grateful that I discovered this profession was so much more than I had thought. To think that before graduate school, I believed that OTs just worked with children to improve fine motor skills and sensory processing… it still makes me laugh.

I hope that anyone who was confused by the profession has gained more insight, but if you have any more questions please ask!

It would be unfortunate to think that people aren’t seeking an occupational therapist only because they don’t even know what an OT does!