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

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Physical Therapy vs. Occupational Therapy: What’s the Difference?
portrait of Heather Mullinix
by Heather Mullinix
Published on November 23, 2021

What's the Difference? | Physical Therapist Degree | Occupational Therapist Degree | Career and Salary Outlook | Which Is Right for Me? | FAQs


Physical therapy and occupational therapy both help patients recover from an injury or illness. However, these two specialties focus on different goals and outcomes.

What's the difference between physical therapy vs. occupational therapy? Physical therapy works to improve mobility or range of motion overall. Occupational therapy focuses on accomplishing daily tasks more efficiently or easily.

Career opportunities in both fields continue to grow. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects occupational therapist jobs will increase by 17% from 2020-2030. For physical therapists, a 21% job growth is projected during that same period.

Read on to learn more about careers in occupational therapy and physical therapy.

What's the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy?

Both physical therapy and occupational therapy fall under the category of rehabilitative therapy. Working with assistants and aides, the therapist evaluates each patient to create an individual plan for improvement that considers current conditions and the patient's goals.

Physical therapists work with patients dealing with pain. They also work to help patients regain movement. These therapists see patients for various conditions, like shoulder injuries, degenerative spinal conditions, or arthritis. They can provide hands-on muscle manipulation, electrical stimulation, and massage. They develop targeted exercises and stretches to help a patient regain strength in affected muscle groups.

Occupational therapists work to help patients regain independence by learning how to complete daily tasks, like dressing or cooking. They focus on a patient's fine motor skills. Patients may have suffered a stroke or have developmental conditions that impair motor skills. Occupational therapists also work with patients who have had surgery or an injury that has affected their hands and wrists.

Physical Therapy Pros and Cons

Pros

Physical therapists work to help patients overcome pain and regain a high quality of life. Physical therapists earn a median annual salary of $91,010, as of May 2020. BLS projects 49,100 new jobs from 2020-2030.

Cons

Becoming a physical therapist requires a doctoral degree and state license. Physical therapists may need to lift or move patients, putting therapists at risk of injury. Some patients may not follow treatment plans or may have challenging personalities.

Occupational Therapy Pros and Cons

Pros

Occupational therapy provides opportunities to specialize in treating patients with specific needs. Occupational therapists earned a median annual salary of $86,280, as of May 2020. BLS projects 23,000 new occupational therapy jobs from 2020-2030.

Cons

Occupational therapists must earn a master's degree. Some tasks may expose the therapist to bodily fluids. The work can be physically and emotionally challenging.

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapy offers career opportunities for physical therapists and physical therapy assistants. These therapists work in standalone therapy centers, hospitals, or rehabilitation centers. They may also work in home health agencies, physician offices, or collegiate or professional athletic organizations.

Physical therapy assistants typically earn an associate degree with study in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology. As students, they complete hands-on clinical work under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist and assistant.

Physical therapists need a bachelor's degree in healthcare, fitness, or a related area before seeking a doctor of physical therapy degree. The doctoral program typically takes three years to complete, often followed by a one-year residency. Physical therapists must apply for licensing in their state and may seek board certification.

What Degree Do I Need to Become an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists may work in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, outpatient facilities, or nursing facilities. Home health agencies, schools, and public health agencies also need occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants.

An occupational therapy assistant needs an associate degree from an accredited occupational therapy program. Many community colleges and technical schools offer these programs, which typically include 16 weeks of clinical work experience.

An aspiring occupational therapist must first earn a bachelor's degree in a related subject, like health science or biology, followed by a master's in occupational therapy. An occupational therapy degree requires 2-3 years to complete, with a minimum of 24 weeks of supervised clinical work.

Licensing requirements vary by state but often require passing the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

Career and Salary Outlook for Physical and Occupational Therapists

The BLS projects an increase in both physical therapy jobs and occupational therapy jobs from 2020-2030.

For physical therapists, the BLS projects a 21% job growth during the decade. A 35% job growth is projected for physical therapist assistants. The BLS estimates 15,600 job openings each year, on average, for physical therapists.

The BLS projects a 17% growth in occupational therapist jobs from 2020-2030 and 36% job growth for occupational therapy assistants. Occupational therapist graduates will find an estimated 10,100 job openings each year, on average, during the decade.

The aging population will help drive growth in both fields of rehabilitative therapy. People are staying active later in life, which can put them at risk for injury. Chronic conditions and medical trauma like heart attacks or strokes also increase with aging. These therapists serve critical roles in helping patients recover and regain their independence and mobility.

Both fields can lead to jobs that offer competitive wages in the healthcare industry.

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 massage or hands-on joint manipulation, stretching, and special exercises. Physical therapists need a doctorate in physical therapy and must maintain a state license to treat patients.

Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $91,010


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 or perform massages. 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 (as of May 2020): $59,770


Exercise Physiologist

These specialists work with doctors to develop exercise programs for patients to help them meet 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 (as of May 2020): $50,280


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 23% growth in athletic trainer jobs from 2020-2030.

Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $49,860


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 (as of May 2020): $86,280


Occupational Therapy Assistant

An occupational therapy assistant works with patients to use new devices or equipment. They often help patients with exercises and chart 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 (as of May 2020): $62,940


Recreation Therapist

These therapists develop activities to help patients with disabilities, injuries, or chronic illnesses. 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 (as of May 2020):$47,710


Speech-Language Pathologist

Speech-language pathologists work with patients on problems with speech and with swallowing. They can coach patients through exercises to help them better form words or overcome speech disabilities like stuttering. These 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 (as of May 2020): $80,480


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

Both physical therapy and occupational therapy offer opportunities to improve a patient's quality of life. Both fields work in similar environments and require similar qualities: problem-solving, compassion, and communication.

How do you choose physical therapy vs. occupational therapy?

Both careers require extensive education and state licensing. Some occupational therapy programs offer a fast-track option of five years for undergraduate and graduate work. Physical therapy requires earning a doctorate after earning a bachelor's degree, about at least seven years combined.

Consider the type of patients you want to work with. Both fields offer opportunities to specialize.

Occupational therapists, for example, may work with young children with developmental or physical disabilities. Physical therapists can specialize in the treatment of orthopedic or neurological disorders. Physical therapists can also work with children, older adults, or athletes.

Frequently Asked Questions About Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy

What do physical therapists do?

Physical therapists treat patients for various movement issues, such as injuries to the spine or rehabilitation following knee surgery. The physical therapist develops an individualized care plan for each patient based on observations, a clinical evaluation, and treatment goals.

Treatment can include massage or joint manipulation, heat or cold therapy, and targeted exercises. The therapist also discusses ongoing self-management techniques, like activity modification or exercises to do at home. Specializations include orthopedic, geriatric, and pediatric physical therapy. They can also include cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation.

What do occupational therapists do?

Occupational therapists help their patients adapt to injuries or illnesses to lead more independent or pain-free lives. They work with patients of all ages, from small children to older adults. They may help patients regain function of fine motor skills after a stroke or help a child adapt to an amputation.

Occupational therapists develop exercises that help their patients meet their goals, such as buttoning a shirt or addressing behavioral issues in children. They also teach patients how to use assistive technology, like canes, prosthetics, or wheelchairs. Specializations include hand therapy, mental health, pediatrics, and mobility.

Is physical therapy harder than occupational therapy?

Both physical therapy and occupational therapy careers come with unique challenges. As healthcare professionals, both fields can include emotional stress, long hours, and continuing education requirements.

Physical therapists must earn a doctorate in physical therapy, pass an exam, and gain state licensure. The work can be physically taxing on the therapist, with some treatments requiring lifting or moving the patient.

Occupational therapists need a master's degree, must pass an exam, and are required to maintain state licensure. The therapists work directly with the public, sometimes in their homes. Occupational therapists may become frustrated with budget limitations and institutional policies that they feel can hinder patient progress.

Do occupational therapists make more than physical therapists?

Physical therapists earn a higher median annual salary than occupational therapists. The BLS reports physical therapists earned $91,010, as of May 2020, compared to occupational therapists, who earned a median annual salary of $86,280.

Several factors determine how much you may earn, including where you live, how much experience you have, and the industry in which you work. As of May 2020, spectator sports and outpatient care facilities offer the highest annual mean salaries for physical therapists, $108,520 and $105,600, respectively. Child daycare services offered the highest mean wage for occupational therapists at $106,070.

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