Rehabilitative Work: Physical Therapy vs Occupational Therapy

Physical therapy and occupational therapy both involve providing hands-on rehabilitative work to help patients with injuries and disabilities. However, these are not interchangeable fields.

What is the difference between physical therapy vs occupational therapy? The following sections explore key areas that distinguish the two types of professions.

Job Responsibilities

Physical therapists can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore mobility. In many cases, this occurs without expensive surgery and it often reduces the need for long-term use of prescription medications.

“Physical therapists can teach patients how to prevent or manage their condition so that they will achieve long-term health benefits,” according to the American Physical Therapy Association. “PTs examine each individual and develop a plan, using treatment techniques to promote the ability to move, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. In addition, PTs work with individuals to prevent the loss of mobility before it occurs by developing fitness- and wellness-oriented programs for healthier and more active lifestyles.”

Occupational therapists, however, focus on helping patients develop, recover and improve the skills needed for daily living.

“In its simplest terms, occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants help people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations),” the American Occupational Therapy Association says. “Common occupational therapy interventions include helping children with disabilities to participate fully in school and social situations, helping people recovering from injury to regain skills, and providing supports for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes.”


Physical therapists need a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Doctor of Physical Therapy programs are typically three years long and include courses in biomechanics, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience and pharmacology. Students must also complete at least 30 weeks of clinical work, which allows them to gain supervised experience in areas such as acute care and orthopedic care. After graduation, physical therapists may apply to and complete a clinical residency, which lasts about one year and provides additional training and experience in specialty areas of care. Therapists who have completed a clinical residency may specialize further by completing a fellowship in an advanced clinical area.

Occupational therapists need at least a master’s degree in occupational therapy, according to the BLS. Some occupational therapists have a doctoral degree.

Master’s degree programs in occupational therapy are typically two to three years long, while doctoral programs take about three years. Some schools offer a dual-degree program that allows students to earn both degrees in five years. Both types of programs require at least 24 weeks of supervised fieldwork, which allows prospective occupational therapists to gain clinical work experience.

Licensing and Certification

All states require physical therapists and occupational therapists to be licensed. Requirements vary by state, but all physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy; all occupational therapists must pass the national examination administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

Physical therapists typically need continuing education to keep their license. Requirements vary by state. Physical therapists can pursue becoming a board-certified specialist, after gaining work experience. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers certification in eight clinical specialty areas, including orthopedics, sports and geriatric physical therapy.

Occupational therapists must take continuing education classes to maintain certification. Requirements vary by state. The American Occupational Therapy Association also offers a number of board and specialty certifications for therapists who want to demonstrate their advanced or specialized knowledge in areas of practice, such as pediatrics, mental health or low vision.

Job Growth and Salary

Physical therapists earn a median annual wage of $85,400, according to the BLS. Employment is projected to grow 34 percent by 2024, which is much faster than the average for all occupations (7 percent).

Occupational therapists earn a median annual wage of $81,910, according to the BLS. Employment is projected to grow 27 percent by 2024, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

Pursue Your Career in Healthcare

Alvernia University’s online BS in Healthcare Science prepares students for a wide range of opportunities in healthcare environments. From careers in therapy to management-level roles, graduates can enter the industry immediately or pursue graduate studies.

The program takes place in a flexible and convenient online learning environment that accommodates students’ work and personal schedules.

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