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What's the difference between Physio & Occupational Therapy?

Physiotherapy vs Occupational Therapy

Often people wonder what the difference is between a physiotherapist (physio) and an occupational therapist (OT). This is a valid question as both physios and OT's work with people who face limitations with their everyday tasks due to injury, illness, or disability… yet they have very different roles!

When choosing whether you should visit a physio or an OT (or both!!) is it important to understand their differences.

Physios work on the actual impairment itself! This may be through massage, using specialised techniques (such as the Sarah Key method), and giving exercises to help strengthen the area over time. This aims to improve the impairment by lessening pain, increasing mobility, strengthening the area, and reducing the risk of future injury.

OT’s take a different approach and focus on the ‘occupations’ that you are doing. ‘Occupations’ are divided into three different areas:

  • Productive (working, volunteering, house hold tasks, caring for children or others)

  • Self-care (bathing, grooming, going to the toilet, getting dressed, eating, sleeping)

  • Leisure (playing golf, watching movies, knitting, going to the beach, catching up with friends).

OTs may work with you to find alternative ways to do the occupations that you want or need to do. This can occur by teaching new skills, providing equipment or assistive devices, and altering the environment.

For example:

Paul broke his leg last week at work (he is a Mechanic). He has a wife who works full-time and two young kids, so he feels as though he must be as independent as possible so that life can go on as ‘normal’. Paul also loves his job and wants to get back to it ASAP.

Paul met with the physio who built a program with Paul to restore his mobility and strengthen his leg during his recovery progress. The exercises and stretches are specific to Paul and his injury to maximise his recovery.

Paul then sat down with the OT who provided Paul with some equipment so that he would be able to shower and dress independently (he is in a full-leg cast so is unable to bend down and is less stable for the next 6-8 weeks). In addition, the OT developed a gradual return to work program that enabled Paul to get back to work after 2 weeks. This was made alongside the physio to ensure that he could get back to work without impacting his progress.

Another example:

Danielle had a stroke which resulted in a loss of movement on the left side of her body. Danielle lives with her partner and works part-time at the local boutique.

The physio and Danielle work together to build back her muscle strength in the left side in order to restore her mobility and use of her left arm. This involves …

Danielle then saw the OT who discussed what goals were important to her. Danielle does not care about getting back to work at the moment. For her, she really wants to relearn how to bath, dress and eat by herself. Danielle also loves to cook and this is another goal she would like to work towards.

While Danielle is still building up the strength and movement in her left side, the OT provides her with some equipment and teaches her how to use them in order to help her to complete her self-care tasks. As she increases her strength and movement, Danielle will work alongside the OT to relearn and build her independence in these important activities.

As for Danielle’s cooking, in her regular sessions with the OT they will work towards this goal through energy conservation techniques, recipe alterations, assistive equipment, and practice, amongst other things!


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