What is Occupational Therapy? | Occupational Therapist Explains

What is occupational therapy? If you look online, you’ll get all sorts of definitions, some short, some longer, and more detailed. Put simply, occupational therapy helps people do things that are functional and meaningful to them. You may be wondering, isn’t that what physical therapists do? While there is some overlap, the core and basis of what we do are fundamentally different. Let’s explore what occupational therapists do a little further.

You may be wondering, isn’t that what physical therapists do? PTs help get people more physically healthy through exercise, strengthening, balance, and mobility. While similar, the core of occupational therapy is to help people engage in activities that are meaningful to them. I ask every patient what their goals are in the hospital when I first work with them and periodically to check in with them. A common goal I get is to walk again. However, this is more of a “PT” goal.

The way I explain OT is, that it’s doing things when you get from point A to point B after walking through mobility. This is an oversimplified example, but occupational therapy is what you actually do after you get to point B. You walk to the dining area to eat, walk or use a wheelchair to the bathroom because you have to use the bathroom, get to the shower to actually do the shower, to the closet to pick out an outfit and to get dressed, to the kitchen to make something to eat and socialize.

You may have heard of the term ADLs, or activities of daily living. The examples I just mentioned are activities of daily living because we often do them… every day. OTs work with people across the lifespan, from pediatrics to adults to older adults. Why the term occupational then? Because many people think it has to do with finding a job. But instead of thinking of occupational as an occupation for work, think about occupational as occupy, as in how you would occupy your time.

What do you do in your day-to-day to occupy time? You likely have to spend some time eating to stay alive, using the bathroom, and doing other ADLs. But because you do other things, such as shopping, going to school, work, doing things for fun, socializing, meditating, or other self-care, these also fall under the realm of occupation therapy.

Occupational therapists like to call these things that people do to occupy time “occupations”. And yes, because getting back to work and things like recovering from a workplace injury occupy one’s time, they are also considered occupations, and occupational therapists help patients with these too! Again, where there may be overlap with physical therapy is things like mobility and strengthening, and while OTs do this too, we also like to focus on other things.

Because of this, OT is holistic, client-centered, and client-goal-oriented. So this means no two occupational therapy plans would be the same for two different people. Just like how a doctor talks to you to get a history and physical based on your story, occupational therapists do something similar during your evaluation to create your occupational profile. So instead of doing what the therapist has planned for you, occupational therapists work with people to help them do the things that are functional and meaningful to them.

And remember how I mentioned that occupational therapy is holistic. This means that OT does not only work with the physical parts of the body. We also work with people on their mental health too. And their spiritual health. It’s all connected and part of what occupational therapists do holistically.

So whether they are working with families to help a child with autism, a family to help a stroke survivor learn to get dressed, or someone with major depression get back in the swing of things, we also address the mental health too. Examples of this include breathing strategies, coping strategies, thinking therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy, stress management, or even yoga. Pretty cool huh?

So where do occupational therapists work? I mentioned the hospital, so anywhere from the emergency room to the NICU to the rehabilitation unit. From the hospital, patients can go home, to a skilled nursing facility, or other specialty programs. So OTs work there too. Also outpatient and in people’s homes. Also in schools, clinics, and private practice. OTs work in mental health too right? So in mental health units, community programs, prisons, and rehabilitation programs such as for depression and anxiety. OTs also work in hand therapy, driver rehabilitation training, and with people with disabilities in more specific settings such as spinal injury programs. OTs also do consulting with other industries by designing products to help us lead better lives that are more functional and practical.

What supports what occupational therapists do then? The answer is research and science. Just like how there is research for medicine, pharmacy, biology, chemistry, and psychology, there are occupational therapists and researchers doing research in the field of occupational therapy.

Jeff is a licensed occupational therapist and lead content creator for OT Dude. He covers all things occupational therapy as well as other topics including healthcare, wellness, mental health, technology, science, sociology, and philosophy. Buy me a Coffee on Venmo.