What is occupational therapy anyway?

Posted on: April 21st, 2015 by stephaniekrueger

Do you know someone who struggles (or struggled) to dress himself or to reach overhead to get something down from a shelf? Or perhaps walking up/down stairs or tending a garden were insurmountable tasks. These daily struggles of real people are what drive Occupational Therapists. All medical providers are concerned with the well being of the individual. Occupational therapists just specialize in functional well being (we’ll get to that later).

I wanted to share a story from one of my fellow Occupational Therapists. Amy shared (with permission) this brief patient story. I think it’s a great example of what drives us to continue helping people day in and day out.


Amy: One of my favorite experiences as an OT was working with a man by the name of Pat. Our relationship began in June of 2005 after he hit a fuel truck while riding his motorcycle. He began seeing me for treatment sixty minutes, five days a week to treat his broken humerus, lacerated artery, fractured scapula, hand and five ribs, as well as laceration of the Radial and Median Nerves which resulted in a loss of his biceps.

After each of his six surgeries ranging from May, 2005 to October 2009 this gentleman returned to occupational therapy to gain motion, strength and sensation within his left upper extremity.  Nearly ten years after his accident, this man, due to his amazing dedication to therapy and home program as well as his strong positive mental attitude, continues to work as well as rebuild AND ride motorcycles.  He continues to do some therapy and has a few of the therapy tools he used along the way hanging up in his workshop.  The bond between us that was created during those four years of therapy remains to this day.


Everyone who works in the medical field has stories like Amy’s, and we’re so glad we do because that means that we were able to help people who were in really bad situations like Pat. It’s so encouraging!

Occupational therapists help people in very specific ways, and that’s what this post is really all about.

So let’s kick this off with our professional organizations definition. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, occupational therapy is the therapeutic use of everyday life activities (occupations) with individuals or groups for the purpose of participation in roles and situations in home, school, workplace, community, and other settings.

Each year, occupational therapy enables people of all ages to live life to its fullest by helping them promote health, prevent—or better live with—injury, illness, or disability. Occupational therapists (OT’s) not only work with a wide range of individuals, ranging from pediatrics to geriatrics, they also work in a variety of different settings such as hospitals, outpatient clinics, hand clinics, nursing homes, home health organizations, schools, and with community groups.

I’m so glad that I get to work with three other excellent occupational therapists/certified hand therapists and two occupational therapists who specialize in hand therapy. Hand therapists focus on rehabilitation of the upper limb, which includes the hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder girdle. It is a merging of occupational and physical therapy theory and practice that combine comprehensive knowledge of the structure of the upper limb with function and activity.

Using specialized skills in assessment, planning and treatment, hand therapists provide therapeutic interventions to prevent dysfunction, restore function and/or reverse the progression of pathology of the upper limb in order to enhance an individual’s ability to execute tasks and to participate fully in life situations.

A CHT (certified hand therapist) is an OT or PT who has a minimum of 5 years of clinical experience, including 4,000 hours or more in direct practice in hand therapy. In addition, the CHT has successfully passed a comprehensive test of advanced clinical skills and theory in upper quarter rehab. A CHT is required to demonstrate continued professional development and competency by recertifying every 5 years.

2 myths about Occupational Therapy debunked:

So we just went over what exactly an occupational therapist and a hand therapist are, and now, I think it’s important to debunk a few myths about occupational therapy:

Myth #1. Occupational Therapy (OT) is therapy for your job or therapy to help you find a job.
Sorry, but that’s not quite right. Occupational Therapy is treatment that focuses on helping people reach independence for the job of living life. Independence might mean resuming work tasks like typing or using a hammer, or it might mean getting dressed without help from someone, learning to write, or even playing. The goal of independence depends on the person and what is important to help them succeed in their life. Therefore an OT practitioner can help guide the client through therapy to successfully reach his/her goal.

Myth #2. Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy are the same thing.
Sorry, wrong again. So, what is the main difference between the two professions? The main difference is Occupational Therapy focuses on what activities (or occupations) are most important to you. For example the necessities to live an independent life you need to get dressed, feed yourself, take care of your personal hygiene, work, play, and enjoy life! An Occupational Therapist looks at all of these things and help an individual find what is preventing them from being the most independent as possible. The Occupational practitioner works to increase range of motion and strength, but also gives the client the tools to achieve their own independence. A Physical Therapist works on movement, for instance how far a client can walk, move their leg, and so forth. Physical Therapists whole focal point is mobility. Although our focus as practitioner is sometimes different our goal is always the same, to improve the quality of life to the people we work with.

Occupational therapy is an exciting career, so from me to my fellow Occupational Therapists and anyone else reading this: Happy Occupational Therapy Month!!!

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