Blue and orange designed graphic with text overlay says the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy.

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy: What’s the Difference?

Gwen Davis-Barrios
Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Young
Apr 1, 2024

Occupational Therapy (OT) and Physical Therapy (PT) are frequently confused, so let’s set the record straight. The difference between OT and PT is that OT focuses on improving a client’s ability to perform everyday activities while PT focuses on improving a patient’s ability to perform body movements and function. Here’s a breakdown of how they differ.

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy

Both occupational therapy and physical therapy are important healing modalities that help patients live full lives. There’s also plenty of overlap between the methods and skills used in PT and OT. The difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy is that OT focuses on lifestyle and skills and PT focuses on physiology.

PT is focused on patients’ physiology and helps them build physical strength, range of motion, and flexibility. Physical Therapists (PTs) help patients recover after injuries or operations through targeted practices like stretches, exercises, and hands-on treatments. PTs work closely with their assistants, Physical Therapist Assistant (PTAs), to restore lost function.

While OT also considers physical strength, range of motion, and flexibility, it’s more focused on lifestyle. Occupational Therapists (OTs) take a holistic approach that builds patient ability and makes reasonable modifications that helps a patient function. On top of physical exercises, OTs may help their patients adapt their home and work environments with equipment and aids. OTs and their assistants, Occupational Therapy Assistants (OTAs), love the opportunity to think creatively.

Whether a patient seeks OT vs PT depends on their individual needs and goals. For example, an injured or post-surgical patient who’s otherwise healthy might attend PT to regain strength and reduce pain. OT patients require help with both physical rehabilitation, skill development, and lifestyle changes in order to perform daily tasks. At Joyce University, our OTA program teaches students how to assist OTs in all these areas.

Job Duties in OT vs PT

Daily life and job duties look a little different in OTs versus PTs, and the same goes for OTAs and PTAs. Here’s a breakdown of each job.

Occupational Therapist Job Duties

  • Evaluate a client’s condition and treatment needs.
  • Develop a client’s individualized treatment plan.
  • Help clients perform daily tasks and practice self-care.
  • Advise clients on adaptive equipment.
  • Record and assess client progress.
  • Evaluate a client’s home and/or workplace to identify potential improvements, then educate family members and employers on recommended adjustments.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Job Duties

  • Collaborate with OTs to help clients develop and recover skills for activities of daily living.
  • Implement treatment programs created by OTs (including activities, exercises, and training on adaptive equipment).
  • Track client progress and report it to the OT.
  • Guide family members, caregivers, and other healthcare providers on how to best support the client’s treatment program.
  • Maintain treatment areas and set up therapy equipment.

Physical Therapist Job Duties

  • Assess physical problems caused by injury or illness.
  • Develop individualized treatment plans for patients.
  • Utilizes exercises, stretching, hands-on therapy, and equipment to help increase mobility, ease pain, and facilitate improved patient health.
  • Maintains records and tracks patient’s goals and progress.
  • Creates wellness programs aimed at preventing injury.
  • Educate patients about the recovery process.

Physical Therapy Assistant Job Duties

  • Provide PT services under the direction and supervision of a PT.
  • Implement treatment plans created with PTs, which include stretching, strength training, exercises, and equipment use.
  • Track and report patient progress before, during, and after therapy.
  • Maintain treatment areas and set up therapy equipment.

Education and Job Requirements for OT vs PT

PT and OT careers have similar educational requirements. While the required courses and focus varies, both require training, a qualification exam, and licensure. Here are the key steps to careers in OT and PT.

Occupational Therapist Education and Job Requirements

  • Earn a master’s or doctorate degree in OT.
  • Pass the NBCOT exam for OTs.
  • Apply for and obtain state licensure.

Occupational Therapist Assistant Education and Job Requirements

  • Earn an associate’s degree.
  • Pass the NBCOT exam for OTAs.
  • Apply for and obtain state licensure.

While most OTA associate degrees take two years to complete, you can study and qualify to be an OTAs in as few as 20 months at Joyce university. Our OTA program is designed to be fast and flexible and will prepare you to pass the NBCOT and meet your state’s licensure requirements.

Physical Therapist Education and Job Requirements

  • Earn a master’s degree.
  • Pass the NPTE exam for PTs.
  • Apply for and obtain state licensure.

Physical Therapist Assistant Education and Job Requirements

  • Earn an associate’s degree.
  • Pass the NPTE exam for PTAs.
  • Apply for and obtain state licensure, which includes CPR and first aid training in some states.

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy Salary

Both OT and PT are high-paying careers with great job outlooks. Many OTAs and PTAs are drawn to their fields by the high salary you can earn after a quick associate’s degree.

Occupational Therapist Salary

According to The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), OTs earn an average salary of $93,180 annually. As of 2023, job outlook for OTs is also higher than the average, with a 12% growth projection.

Occupational Therapist Assistant Salary

If you’re looking for a stable job with lots of demand, an OTA career could hit the spot. The BLS reports a 23% growth projection for OTAs, with an average median salary of $64,250. This field is growing far faster than the average industry, making an OTA degree a great investment in your future.

Physical Therapist Salary

PTs earn an average annual pay of $97,720. The PT job outlook is promising, with a 15% growth projection.

Physical Therapist Assistant Salary

In 2022, BLS reports the median annual wage of an PTA is $62,770, with higher than average job prospects at a 19% growth projection.

Physical vs Occupational Therapy Specialties

OT and PT have different opportunities for specialization and advanced certification. Check out some options in each field.

Occupational Therapy Specialties

OTs can earn advanced certifications from the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). To earn advanced certifications, OTs must be at least three years into their OT career and have lots of experience in their area, then take a certifying exam.

The current areas of certification are:

  • Gerontology
  • Pediatrics
  • Physical Rehabilitation

Occupational Therapy Assistant Specialties

For OTAs and OTA students, the AOTA offers micro credentials and professional certificates. These are specialized training achievements (and they look great on your resume).

You can earn micro credentials in:

  • First Response for Low Vision Rehabilitation
  • Supporting Academic Achievement in School-Based Practice
  • Supporting Social and Emotional Wellbeing in K-12
  • Supporting Educational Transitions from K-12 to Adulthood
  • Driving and Community Mobility
  • Participation, Resilience, and Wellness
  • Home Modifications and Falls Prevention
  • Performing a Home Health Start of Care

Micro credentials are a step toward professional certificates for OTAs. You can earn professional certificates in school-based practice and home & community safety and driving.

Physical Therapy Specialties

PTs can earn an American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) specialist certification, which sets you apart in your field and signals your commitment to the profession.

APTA specialist certifications are available in:

  • Geriatrics
  • Wound Management
  • Neurology
  • Orthopedics
  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s Health
  • Oncology

Physical Therapy Assistant Specialties:

PTAs can specialize through APTA’s advanced proficiency pathways.

Advanced proficiency program recognition is valid for ten years and available in the following areas:

  • Acute Care
  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Wound Management

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy FAQ

Why choose OT over PT?

OT and PT represent different approaches to healing and rehabilitation. Both can work with all sorts of patients, but OT is more focused on daily living tasks and PT is more about motion and movement. If you’re trying to decide between careers in OT vs PT, try volunteering. PTA and OTA volunteer work can help you choose which path is right for you.

What do OTs do?

OTs work with individuals who were either born with a medical condition, acquired an injury, or people with health conditions or impairments to build the skills and abilities needed for daily life.

Where do OTs work?

OTs and OTAs work in hospitals, clinics, schools, homes, and more.

Is becoming an OT worth it?

Every career is worth it if it brings you meaning and does good in the world! If you’re referring to the financial costs and benefits of becoming an OT or OTA, the answer is also yes. Joyce University’s OTA program costs approximately $44,000, and your annual salary could be around $60,000, making it a great ROI from the start.

Who should go into OT?

Anyone who wants to make a difference and work directly with people could succeed as an OTA.

What major is best for OT?

An OTA associate’s degree will prepare you to jump right in as an OTA. If you plan to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree in OT, bachelor’s degrees in sports medicine, kinesiology, biology, health science, or exercise science will prepare you to continue studying.

The main difference between OT and PT is that PTs focus on physiological healing and rehabilitation, whereas OTs focus on both physical rehabilitation and skill building for daily life. If you want to begin a career as an OTA, contact an admissions officer today.

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