Overview of Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapists (OTs) help their clients improve health and quality of life by facilitating participation in meaningful occupations. OTs define occupations as anything that occupies your time.

If you’ve sustained an injury, your occupational therapist will assist you in returning to your daily routine. If you have a disability, your occupational therapist will work with you to participate in activities that you need and want to be doing.

What do you love doing? What gives you purpose and drive? What nitty-gritty tasks do you need to get done during your days? These are the activities in which occupational therapists help you participate. These meaningful activities may range from cooking breakfast, to shopping, to eating, to caring for loved ones, to going to prom.

Occupational Therapy sign
Sarah Lyon

OT Helps With Everyday Activities

Though the scope of occupational therapy is extremely diverse, the process is the same. 

1.) OTs seek to understand your situation and what is important to you 

Occupational therapy begins with listening. Your occupational therapist will interview you about your home environment, your support system, and what roles/activities are important to you. She will sift through your medical record, if available. Her understanding of disease processes, anatomy, cognition, and disability will help her understand how your health situation may be impacting your day-to-day life.

Typically, this interview will be part of a formal evaluation at the beginning of your first session. But, your OT will be listening and assessing how she can deliver the most value throughout your time together.

2.) OTs facilitate healing and wellness starting with the person

Occupational therapists work to facilitate the natural healing processes of the body. They understand that improving health is often the most direct path to returning to meaningful occupations.

OTs are trained to utilize therapeutic activities to impact your physical, cognitive, psychosocial, and sensory health. Many therapists will go on to specialize in particular treatment areas, including but not limited to: 

  • Hand Therapy
  • Lymphedema Management
  • Sensory Integration
  • Pelvic Health
  • Myofascial Release
  • Holistic Mindfulness Techniques
  • Wound Management

3.) OTs determine if the activity needs to be modified

Sometimes when you are waiting for the body to heal, activities can be modified so you can function as independently as possible in the meantime. Clients with disabilities and/or chronic diseases may be looking for long-term solutions to perform important activities. 

Activity modification is often where an occupational therapist's creativity shines. A basic example of activity modification would be utilizing a wheelchair to help you get from place to place. Areas of specialization include:

  • Splint Fabrication
  • Adaptive Technology
  • Adaptive Driving
  • Adaptive Equipment
  • Wheelchair Modification

4.) OTs assess if the environment needs to be modified

Lastly, your OT will take a step back to look at the big picture by observing the environment in which the activity is being performed. She may make recommendations to the environment to support your participation in activities. In a home, she might recommend an extra caregiver be present to help with daily tasks. At a psychiatric hospital, she might recommend a separate space where patients can feel safe. In a school, she may recommend a modification to the playground that would not only help a student with a disability, but all students.

Work Environment

Occupational therapists work with people of all ages, in all types of settings. You may meet an OT working with babies in the NICU, helping the newbies perform their vital life functions: feeding and being held.

You may meet an OT working with a hospice patient in a nursing home, helping him determine what activities are most important in his final days and brainstorming with him about how he can accomplish them. 

The most common work settings are:

  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient Clinics
  • Rehabilitation Centers
  • Home Health Agencies
  • Schools
  • Academia


The entry-level degree for an occupational therapist is a Masters 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.

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