What Is Occupational Therapy?

OT helps patients relearn everyday activities.

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Occupational therapy helps patients to do daily activities or "occupations." Those activities include cooking, bathing, shopping, eating, getting dressed, and caring for loved ones.

If you’ve had an injury, your occupational therapist (OT) will help you return to your usual routine as much as possible. If you have a disability, they will teach you the skills you'll need to live independently.

Occupational therapists may work with you in your home, your workplace, a facility, or in the community to help you do daily activities safely.

Occupational Therapy sign
Sarah Lyon

Conditions That Need OT

You might benefit from occupational therapy if you have trouble doing important tasks at home, work, or school. Some conditions that might need occupational therapy include:

You also may need occupational therapy for injuries. For example, if your hand was severely burned, an occupational therapist could help you to learn to do activities like writing and cooking.

Recap

Occupational therapy helps patients who face challenges with day-to-day activities. It can help patients with illnesses, disabilities, and injuries to become more independent.

What Occupational Therapists Do

Occupational therapists help you to regain the ability to do tasks for yourself. They'll work with you to develop a plan based on your condition, your environment, and the activities you want to do.

Learning About You

Occupational therapy begins with listening to the patient's needs. Your occupational therapist will ask you about your home environment, your family and friends, and important activities. They will review your medical record if available. They'll talk with you about how your health condition impacts your day-to-day life.

Usually, the OT will interview you as part of a formal evaluation at the beginning of your first session. But your OT will be listening to your needs and finding ways to help throughout your time together.

Helping You Heal

Occupational therapists can help you through the healing process, whether it's from an injury or surgery. As your health improves, it becomes easier to return to your daily activities.

For example, if your hand is burned, your occupational therapist might teach you exercises for strength and flexibility. They can also make a specialized splint to protect your hand while it heals.

Many occupational therapists will go on to specialize in different treatment areas, which can include: 

Recap

Your occupational therapist will talk with you about your goals to develop a treatment plan. Treatment may include exercises for mobility or using protective devices like splints.

Modifying Activities

If you have a disability or a chronic disease, you may be looking for ways to perform important tasks throughout the day. Your occupational therapist can help you modify tasks to make them easier.

A basic example of activity modification would be using a wheelchair to help you get from place to place. Another example could be showing you how to safely get in and out of the car.

Therapists can specialize in different areas of activity modification, including:

  • Making custom splints
  • Adaptive technology
  • Adaptive driving
  • Adaptive equipment
  • Wheelchair modification

Looking at Your Environment

Your OT will observe you doing activities in your environment, whether that's at home, work, a facility, or school. They may suggest changes to help make it safer and easier to get around. Examples include:

  • Removing rugs that might cause a tripping hazard.
  • At a psychiatric hospital, recommending a separate space where patients can feel safe.
  • In a school, suggesting a change to the playground that helps a student with a disability.

Recap

Occupational therapists help you modify activities so you can handle them yourself. They evaluate your environment and help make it safer and easier to navigate.

Where Occupational Therapists Work

Occupational therapists work with people of all ages in all types of settings.

For example, an OT may work in the hospital with premature babies who need help with feeding and being held.

You may meet an OT working with a hospice patient in a nursing home. The therapist may ask about activities that are most important to them in their final days.

The most common work settings for occupational therapists are:

  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Home health agencies
  • Schools

Training and Certification

The entry-level degree for an occupational therapist is a Master of Science in occupational therapy. Some OTs may have a doctoral degree in occupational therapy or additional certifications. All states require occupational therapists to be licensed or registered, meaning they have passed a national exam and meet continuing education requirements.

Summary

Occupational therapy can help people of all ages with illnesses, injuries, and disabilities. Working in a variety of settings, occupational therapists are trained to help you manage your condition. They also recommend strategies to make tasks easier and your environment safer.

A Word From Verywell

Talk with your doctor if you feel you could benefit from occupational therapy. As a patient, you'll have an important role in your therapy plan. You and your OT will work with your health care team to meet your goals for daily living.

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