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

Trying to decide between occupational therapy vs. physical therapy? Learn about physical therapy jobs and occupational therapy jobs for your future career.
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  • Physical therapy emphasizes all aspects of physical functions, while occupational therapy emphasizes activities of daily living.
  • Physical therapists need a doctorate, while occupational therapists must have a master's or doctoral degree
  • Physical therapists earn slightly more than occupational therapists on average, though their formal education may take longer to complete.

Both occupational and physical therapists are in demand. Explore both of these fast-growing careers today to make the physical vs. occupational therapy decision.

Key Differences Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy

Both occupational therapists and physical therapists have the same goal: Helping a patient to increase their physical functioning while minimizing any pain. OTs and PTs work in similar settings, such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, independent practices, schools, home health, or residential care centers such as nursing homes. However, their education and functions are not identical.

The difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy is rather subtle. The goal of occupational therapy is to help patients to regain independence with daily tasks. When patients cannot achieve independence, OTs advise them on devices they can use to safely assist with tasks.

Physical therapists diagnose physical conditions and develop treatment plans to improve a patient's physical functioning, such as strength, flexibility, mobility, and balance. A physical therapist needs a doctorate, while an occupational therapist can perform their work with a master's or doctoral degree.

Key Differences Between Occupational and Physical Therapists
Occupational Therapist Physical Therapist
Minimum Degree Required Master's degree Doctorate
How Long to Become 6 years 7 years
Average Annual Salary $93,180 $97,720
Projected Job Growth 12% from 2023-2032 15% from 2023-2032
Source: BLS, 2022

Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists help patients manage their physical day-to-day functioning. They evaluate and treat patients who have illnesses, injuries, or other conditions affecting their ability to function physically.

Despite "occupational" being in the name, this role does not deal only with the patient's job, but every aspect of their life. In addition to teaching and supervising exercises and other physical practices, an occupational therapist may help a patient to adapt their home or workplace, especially after an injury or illness.

Some occupational therapists work with people with psychological or mental health functioning issues, rather than physical ones, to help them find physical methods to address their psychological wellbeing.

  • Education and Training: Occupational therapy degrees (bachelor's degree, master's in occupational therapy), supervised fieldwork, passing the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) examination, and applying for a state license.
  • Techniques and Interventions: Occupational therapists evaluate a patient's function level, establish goals with the patient, teach and supervise exercise techniques, chart progress, and make recommendations for other adaptations, such as advising on how to make a home more physically accessible.

Physical Therapists

Physical therapists also help patients who have injuries, illnesses, or other conditions that require treatment through exercises or other physical treatment such as soft tissue and joint mobilization, and — in some states — joint manipulation.

PTs diagnose a patient's physical condition, create a treatment plan, teach the patient exercises or other physical practices such as stretching, and monitor the patient's progress.

  • Education and Training: Bachelor's degree, graduate work and doctorate, passing the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE),and applying for a license. Some physical therapists choose to complete a fellowship or residency after graduating to specialize further.
  • Techniques and Interventions: Physical therapists improve patient mobility and flexibility through manual therapy and exercise. Manual therapy may include soft tissue mobilization, joint mobilization, and joint manipulation. Physical therapists may also improve balance, coordination, and improve a patient's gait through exercise and gait training, respectively.

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How to Become an Occupational Therapist vs. Physical Therapist

While specific licensing requirements vary by state, both occupational and physical therapists must complete an undergraduate degree and a graduate program.

One major physical vs. occupational therapy distinction is that physical therapists must earn a doctor of physical therapy (DPT), while occupational therapists need a master's degree or doctorate in occupational therapy.

Like medical school, a DPT program does not have an explicit master's level — students enter with a bachelor's degree. Some DPT programs are what is sometimes called a "3+3," transitioning into graduate study after the third year of the undergraduate program. Both programs include extensive fieldwork.

In general, it requires four years of undergraduate education and two years of graduate education to become an occupational therapist, and four years of undergraduate and three years of graduate education to become a physical therapist.

Each state has its own requirements for supervised experience. Occupational therapists must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) and physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). Some states may require physical therapists review state practice laws and pass a jurisprudence exam.

Occupational Therapist Specialties

Occupational therapists can specialize in either a particular type of therapy, such as aquatic therapy, or a particular type of daily life function, such as driving.

In general, certification requires a certain amount of experience dedicated to that area and passing the certification examination. These typically require renewal every 2-3 years, and formal continuing education. Some common certifications include:

  • Aquatic therapeutic exercise certification (ATRIC) from the Aquatic Exercise Association's Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute. Physical therapists may also pursue this specialization.
  • Certified brain injury specialist (CBIS) certification. This is not limited to occupational therapists, but to any professional who works with people with brain injuries.
  • Certified diabetes care and education specialist certification from the Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (CBDE)
  • Specialty Certification in Driving & Community Mobility (SCDCM) is the American Occupational Therapy Associations (AOTA) specialty certification in Driving & Community Mobility. This is a certification specifically for occupational therapy practitioners.
  • Pediatric board certification from the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

Physical Therapist Specialties

Specialty certification in these areas typically requires a certain number of hours of experience with the specialty population or technique, plus passing a certification examination. You must renew your certification through continuing education.

Certification boards include:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary board certification from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties
  • Geriatric board certification from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties
  • Oncology (cancer) board certification from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties
  • Sports board certification from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties

Career and Salary Outlook for Physical and Occupational Therapists

The physical vs. occupational therapy salary gap is not especially wide. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average hourly wage for physical therapists is $47.10 and $44.61 for occupational therapists. The median annual salary for physical therapists is $97,720 and $93,180 annually for occupational therapists.

According to the BLS, 80% of physical therapists earn between $67,910and $128,830 annually and 80% of occupational therapists earn between $63,320 and $123,870.

In addition to experience, factors affecting your earnings include local demand, speciality certification, and work setting. For example, home health occupational therapists earn an average $101,500 and home health physical therapists earn an annual median of $105,130.

Occupational Therapy Careers

Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists help patients regain independence and fine motor function following an injury or illness. They develop exercises to help patients improve or recommend assistive devices and modifications to help them recover. Therapists work in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing facilities, or home health agencies. They need at least a master's degree in occupational therapy.

Median Annual Salary (May 2022, BLS)

Occupational Therapy Assistant

An occupational therapy assistant works with patients to use new devices or equipment. They often help patients with exercises and monitor their progress. They may work in the offices of occupational therapists or physicians, nursing facilities, or hospitals. Occupational therapy assistants attend a two-year associate degree program and must maintain state licensing.

Median Annual Salary (May 2022, BLS)

Recreation Therapist

These therapists develop recreation-based medical treatment programs. They may plan arts and crafts activities, aquatic therapy, or sports and games. In addition to physical activity, they also focus on social and emotional well-being. They may work in hospitals, nursing facilities, or social assistance agencies. Most recreational therapists earn a bachelor's degree in recreational or leisure studies.

Median Annual Salary (May 2022, BLS)

Speech-Language Pathologist

Speech-language pathologists work with patients on problems with speech and swallowing. They can coach patients through exercises to help them better form words or overcome speech disabilities like stuttering. Speech therapists can specialize in treating children or older adults. They work in schools, hospitals, and nursing facilities. This career requires a master's degree and state licensing.

Median Annual Salary (May 2022, BLS)

Physical Therapy Careers

Physical Therapist

Physical therapists evaluate patients with joint, muscle, or tendon injuries and design a treatment plan to help patients regain movement and ease pain. Treatment may include manual therapy, exercises to address strength, mobility, flexibility, balance, and gait training. Physical therapists need a doctorate in physical therapy and must maintain a state license to treat patients.

Median Annual Salary (May 2022, BLS)

Physical Therapist Assistant

Physical therapy assistants work directly with patients under the supervision of a physical therapist. They may help patients with exercises and stretches. They also record patient progress and discuss treatment plans with patients and their families. This career requires an associate degree and state licensing.

Median Annual Salary (May 2022, BLS)

Exercise Physiologist

Exercise physiologists work with doctors to develop exercise programs for patients to help them meet their fitness and wellness goals. The exercise physiologist performs fitness and stress tests, measures vital signs, and coaches patients through activities. They may work in hospitals, doctor's offices, or as independent contractors. This career typically requires at least a bachelor's degree in exercise science or a related field.

Median Annual Salary (May 2022, BLS)

Athletic Trainer

Athletic trainers typically work in college or professional sports programs. They provide first aid care in the event of an injury and help athletes work through rehabilitation programs. They may work under the direction of a doctor or team physician. Most athletic trainers earn a bachelor's degree. Licensing requirements vary by state. The BLS projects a 14% increase in athletic trainer jobs from 2022-2032.

Median Annual Salary (May 2022, BLS)

Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: Which Is Right for Me?

When deciding between physical vs. occupational therapy, overall, physical therapists do earn slightly more than occupational therapists, though their formal education also typically lasts longer. Both help people to perform physical activities, though occupational therapists focus more on specific tasks of daily living.

Frequently Asked Questions About Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapists

What types of conditions do occupational therapists work with?

Occupational therapists work with physical conditions such as arthritis, stroke rehabilitation, injuries, amputations, joint replacement, or spinal injury. They also work with conditions such as Alzheimer's or other types of dementia, anxiety, ADHD, or sensory disorders.

What types of conditions do physical therapists work with?

Physical therapists work with conditions of all parts of the body. Conditions may include injuries, back and neck pain, joint replacement, foot problems such as plantar fasciitis, cancer and cancer recovery, scar tissue and wounds, movement disorders, and other conditions that affect physical functioning or cause pain.

What is the best degree to become a physical therapist?

To be a physical therapist, you must have a doctor of physical therapy degree. You can take a pre-physical therapy program as an undergraduate or major in a related field.

Do occupational therapists make more than physical therapists?

In general, occupational therapists make less than physical therapists, but not significantly less. The average annual salary for physical therapists is $97,720 and $93,180 for occupational therapists, according to the BLS.

Page last reviewed on October 16, 2023

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