Occupational vs. Physical Therapy: Patient Questions

With Additional Information for Future Therapist Students

Occupational therapists (OTs) and physical therapists (PTs) help people improve function after illness or injury. However, the way they achieve these goals differs. Occupational therapists focus on improving functional abilities with everyday activities, while physical therapists focus on strength and functional mobility.

This article discusses interventions provided by occupational and physical therapists, as well as information for students interested in these careers.

A healthcare provider stretching the arm of a teenage boy.

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What Conditions Are Teated by OTs and PTs?

Occupational and physical therapists work with people of all ages with various health conditions, injuries, and developmental disabilities.

Examples include:

OTs and PTs can be found in hospitals, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, schools, and other healthcare facilities. Occupational therapists also work in mental health facilities, while some physical therapists work in fitness or sports facilities.

What Is an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists are licensed healthcare providers who help people be as independent as possible in daily activities that give them a sense of purpose and meaning.

How They Help Patients

OTs help patients improve function in all occupations of life (activities of everyday life).

Categories of occupations include:

  • Activities of daily living (ADLs), such as eating, dressing, and bathing
  • Instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs), such as meal prep, shopping, and money management
  • Health management
  • Education
  • Rest and sleep
  • Work
  • Play
  • Leisure
  • Social participation

OTs use a variety of interventions that include both activities and aids to improve physical and mental function. Examples include:

  • Range of motion exercises
  • Strengthening exercises
  • Splinting
  • Adaptive equipment (such as raised toilet seats, dressing aids, and tub bench)
  • Life skills training (such as money management, personal care, and cooking)
  • Adaptive driving
  • Cognitive skills training
  • Stress management techniques
  • Wheelchair positioning
  • Adaptive technology

What Is a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists are also licensed healthcare providers. They are movement experts who help people regain mobility and function after injury or illness.

How They Help Patients

PTs use a variety of treatments to reduce pain and improve mobility. Examples include:

Which One Is Better?

When it comes to occupational and physical therapy, neither one is better than the other. Each type of therapy plays an important but different role in recovery from injury and illness—in some cases, people receive both types of therapy at the same time.

If you're trying to choose between OT and PT as a career, there are a few things to consider.

OT might be a better fit if you are interested in the following:

  • Helping people regain function in everyday activities
  • Improving the safety and usefulness of a person's environment
  • Working with individuals who have feeding issues
  • Addressing cognitive deficits that occur with developmental conditions or after brain trauma
  • Working with people with mental health conditions

PT might be a better fit if you are interested in the following:

  • Helping people learn to walk and move around after injury or illness
  • Working with injured athletes
  • Specializing in cardiac or pulmonary rehab
  • Treating patients with pelvic health issues
  • Performing wound care

If you aren't sure which career path to take, shadow people in both fields in various work settings—and ask lots of questions.

Education and Specialties

Occupational and physical therapists must complete graduate school and pass a board exam for certification.

Occupational Therapist Education

To become an occupational therapist, you must first obtain a master's degree or a professional doctorate from a program accredited by the American Council for Occupational Therapy Education.

To become certified as an occupational therapist, individuals must pass an exam through the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

Occupational therapists must also be licensed to practice in their state.

Occupational Therapy Specialties

Occupational therapists can choose to specialize in one of the following five areas of specialty certification of the American Occupational Therapy Association:

  • Driving and community mobility
  • Environmental modification
  • Feeding, eating, and swallowing
  • Low vision
  • School systems

Additional specialty certifications can be obtained through other organizations.

Certified Hand Therapist

Both occupational and physical therapists can specialize in hand therapy (treatment of the upper extremities) and obtain certification through the Hand Therapy Certification Commission. Therapists who successfully pass the board exam earn the Certified Hand Therapist (CHT) distinction.

Physical Therapist Education

To become a physical therapist, individuals must complete a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. This degree typically requires three years of graduate school after completing a bachelor's degree.

After completing a DPT program, individuals must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam through the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

Physical Therapy Specialties

Physical therapists also have opportunities to become specialists. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers board certification in the following areas:

  • Cardiovascular (heart) and pulmonary (lung)
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women's health
  • Wound management

Do You Need a Referral?

Many individuals can see an occupational or physical therapist without a referral from another healthcare provider—a process called direct access. However, your state laws or individual insurance plans might require you to get a referral. Approved referral sources vary by state and insurance plan but often include physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician's assistants.


Occupational and physical therapists have similar treatment goals but use different interventions to help people recover from injury or illness. Occupational therapists focus on improving the performance of daily activities, while physical therapists primarily focus on decreasing pain and increasing mobility.

Both career paths require graduate degrees and licensing exams. OTs and PTs have opportunities to become specialists in a variety of areas.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does an OT or PT make more money?

    Salaries for both OT and PT vary based on several factors, such as geographical location and the type of facility. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, the median annual salary for an OT was $85,570, and the median annual salary for a PT was $95,620.

  • Who goes to school longer, occupational or physical therapists?

    Occupational and physical therapists both attend graduate school. OTs can enter the field with a master's degree or a doctorate, while PTs must have a doctorate. OTs who obtain a master's degree have the least amount of schooling needed.

  • Why isn't OT prescribed as often as PT?

    There's no way to determine whether OT or PT is prescribed more than the other. However, physical therapy often gets more attention in the public eye, such as when a pro athlete gets injured. There are also more outpatient clinics for physical therapy. OTs often work in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes where they are less visible to the public.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Occupational Therapy Association. Occupations & everyday activities.

  2. American Physical Therapy Association. About physical therapists and physical therapist assistants.

  3. Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education. School directory.

  4. National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. Certification.

  5. American Occupational Therapy Association. Licensure.

  6. American Occupational Therapy Association. Specialty certified practitioners.

  7. Hand Therapy Certification Commission. The CHT credential.

  8. American Physical Therapy Association. Becoming a PT.

  9. Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. About us.

  10. American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Become an ABPTS-certified specialist.

  11. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Physical therapists.

  12. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational therapists.

By Aubrey Bailey, PT, DPT, CHT
Aubrey Bailey is a physical therapist and professor of anatomy and physiology with over a decade of experience providing in-person and online education for medical personnel and the general public, specializing in the areas of orthopedic injury, neurologic diseases, developmental disorders, and healthy living.