Occupational Therapy Assistant vs Physical Therapy Assistant

The fields of occupational therapy and physical therapy offer both challenging and rewarding careers. These are growing fields with lots of room for opportunity and growth, as well as excellent pay and benefits.

For those interested in these fields, there is often confusing about the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy. These are two distinct fields that do have some overlap, but are quite different from one another. Both fields offer assistant positions that are wonderful for those who are interested in working in the medical field without having to invest seven or more years in school. Let’s look now at some of the differences and similarities between an occupational therapy assistant and a physical therapy assistant.

The Definition Of Occupational vs. Physical Therapy

Occupational Therapy is defined as “A form of therapy recuperating from physical or mental illness that encourages rehabilitation through the performance of activities required in daily life.”

Physical Therapy is defined as “The treatment of disease, injury or deformity by physical methods such as massage, heat treatment and exercise rather than medication or surgery.”

These are short, simple definitions and are by no means comprehensive, however, you can easily see there are big differences in the two fields, although there may be some overlapping therapies, activities and techniques.

If you are trying to decide between a career as a physical therapist assistant or an occupational therapist assistant, it helps to have a deeper  understanding of what each profession entails.

What Does A Physical Therapist Do?

Physical therapists are an essential part of the medical field. They broaden the choices people have for coping with and recovering from physical pain and movement issues. When talking about what a physical therapist does, it’s important to first look at who a physical therapist helps. Typically, physical therapists help people who have:

  • Sustained an injury that is making movement painful or difficult.
  • Recently had a surgery.
  • Is suffering from a chronic physical condition that causes pain or limits range of motion.
  • Are experiencing physical pain that is not responding to other forms of treatment.

How Do Physical Therapists Help People?

Physical therapists use a variety of techniques and therapies to help their patients feel better. Some common physical therapy treatments include the use of heat, water, massage, movement and exercise to help alleviate pain and discomfort and increase range of motion.

Physical therapists may practice in the following settings:

  • Private outpatient clinics or offices
  • Schools
  • Gyms or fitness centers
  • Sub-acute care facilities
  • Skilled nursing facilities
  • Homes
  • Education centers
  • Hospitals
  • Sports training facilities

What Does A Physical Therapist Assistant Do?

Also known as a PTA, the physical therapist assistant works under the supervision of the physical therapist in a variety of professional settings. The PTA is part of a team of care providers and interacts with patients in a variety of ways, including intake, assessments, implementing treatments and therapies and duties laid out by the PT as needed. The Physical Therapist Assistant career is ideal for those who wish to make a difference in the lives of people working in the medical field.

What Does An Occupational Therapist Do?

An occupational therapist helps people participate more fully in their daily lives. It’s not as much about alleviating pain or recovering from an injury. People who seek out the help of an occupational therapist are often looking for assistance to help them manage their everyday lives. For example, a person who has suffered a stroke may seek the help of an occupational therapist to relearn how to do many daily tasks that were second nature before. They may need to learn new ways to do things in the event that they have not fully regained muscle or motor control.

Children and adults with both physical and cognitive disabilities are helped by occupational therapists to learn to physically navigate the tasks that are important to them, or to be more successful or comfortable in certain situations. An occupational therapist may help a person with a physical or mental disability to learn the skills they will need to enter the workforce. The therapist helps in situations where the condition is permanent as well as in short-term situations.

Another good way to look at the difference between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist is the following scenario:

A young man is in a car accident. He has lost range of motion in his hands and is having difficulty completing normal daily tasks. He’s also in a lot of pain. He may see a physical therapist who will work with him to help manage his pain and work on restoring range of motion through things like heat, exercise and massage. At the same time, the man may see an occupational therapist who will teach him how to do things within his current abilities, and helping him cope with his present situation. This may include modifying activities or his environment or using different tools or strategies to help him overcome any barriers as a result of his injury.

Like a physical therapist, an occupational therapist will work in settings such as hospitals, private clinics and practice, sub-acute care facilities, long-term care facilities, residential care facilities and homes.

What Does An Occupational Therapy Assistant Do?

He or she will work with the occupational therapist to provide care to patients. The assistant will often handle the gathering of data and managing of patient treatment and schedules, such as making appointments, calling patients, answering questions and providing preliminary screenings and intakes. He or she may provide some levels of care and treatment, and will work under the direct supervision of the occupational therapist.

Both the physical therapist assistant and occupational therapist assistant will work closely with their supervisors to provide quality care for patients. These are very hands-on jobs that require both physical and mental stamina. While becoming a physical or occupational therapist assistant requires specialized degrees and schooling, it can be completed fairly quickly. The field pays quite well, and provides a rewarding career that makes a difference in people’s lives.

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Written by Robert Sanchez
Robert Sanchez is HealthGrad.com's Chief Editorialist. Robert Sanchez has over 10 years experience in the Healthcare field and more recently has become an avid writer advising on career and job topics in this exciting field.

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