Occupational or Physical Therapist Assisting Elderly Woman in Wheelchair

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

When it comes to rehabilitation, occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT) are two essential fields that both aim to enhance a patient's ability to perform daily activities and improve overall well-being. And while they may overlap in some aspects, occupational therapists focus on helping individuals engage in meaningful activities and tasks, while physical therapists focus on improving physical function, mobility, and strength.

Occupational Therapy (OT):

  • Focus: OTs focus on helping individuals of all ages participate in the activities and tasks that are meaningful and important to them, often referred to as "occupations" or "activities of daily living" (ADLs). These occupations or ADLs can include self-care activities (such as bathing, dressing, and eating), work tasks, leisure activities, and social participation.
  • Strategies: OTs use a holistic approach to address physical, cognitive, emotional, and environmental factors that may impact a person's ability to engage in daily activities. They may utilize interventions such as adaptive equipment, environmental modifications, sensory integration therapy, cognitive rehabilitation, and skill-building exercises.
  • Settings: OTs work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, mental health facilities, community health centers, and private practice.

Physical Therapy (PT):

  • Focus: PTs focus on helping individuals improve their physical function, mobility, and strength (in order to improve the ability to perform ADLs. They assess and treat movement dysfunctions, as well as neurological and musculoskeletal conditions that may result from injury, illness, or disability.
  • Strategies: PTs use a variety of techniques and modalities to address impairments, relieve pain, restore mobility, and promote functional independence. These may include therapeutic exercises and activites, manual therapy, gait training, balance training, sensory integration, aquatic therapy, taping, and modalities such as biofeedback and electrical stimulation.
  • Settings: PTs work in diverse settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, sports medicine facilities, skilled nursing facilities, schools, and home health agencies.

Learn more about these unique healthcare professions from two active UCLA rehabilitation therapists.

Occupational Therapy

Meet Leah Dimalanta, a UCLA Health Occupational Therapist

"I love coming to work. There's always something new to learn."

Leah Dimalanta didn’t even know the field of occupational therapy existed until after she had graduated from college. "I went to UC Irvine as premed student because I wanted to go into medicine. That was my path."

Occupational Therapist UCLA Health Leah Dimalanta Portrait

But even after figuring out that becoming a doctor wasn’t going to be the right career choice, Leah continued taking science classes, ultimately graduating with a degree in biology as well as a minor in education because she loved teaching. Then she discovered occupational therapy, and she knew she had found her calling.

"For me, occupational therapy blended medicine and healthcare with being a teacher because as an OT you not only provide education, but you also become a patient’s guide as they navigate their healthcare journey." 

She also liked the fact that occupational therapy gave her an opportunity to form meaningful connections with patients: "In many settings, it's a very flexible, personable, one-on-one experience. You can really work with someone individually."

What Is an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists (OTs) are healthcare professionals who help individuals develop, recover, or maintain the skills needed for daily living and working. They focus on promoting independence and participation in meaningful activities.

"OTs can provide guidance by equipping their patients with different strategies and techniques that will help them achieve autonomy and independence."

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Occupational therapists assess a patient’s functional abilities, identify barriers to participation, and develop personalized intervention plans. They may provide therapeutic activities, recommend assistive devices, modify environments, and teach compensatory strategies to improve a person’s independence and quality of life.

"Occupational therapy focuses on improving someone's activities of daily living (or ADLs), like getting dressed or grooming or eating. We basically focus on things that they do day-to-day which have been impacted by some kind of condition, disease, or injury," Leah explains. "If they can no longer do these things for themselves, OTs will be consulted and look for ways to bridge the gap, so that these patients can start working on being independent again and doing the things they were doing before they got sick."

When and Why Do Patients Need Occupational Therapy

"One thing I love about occupational therapy is that you get to work with so many populations, and you see so many different patients." 

Patients may need occupational therapy when they experience physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges that interfere with their ability to perform daily activities. 

There are several reasons why patients might require OT:

  • Physical injuries or disabilities: After accidents, surgeries, or conditions like a stroke, patients may need OT to regain skills necessary for independent living, such as dressing, grooming, and cooking.
  • Cognitive impairments: Individuals with conditions like dementia or traumatic brain injury may require OT to enhance cognitive abilities, memory, and problem-solving skills.
  • Mental health conditions: OT can help individuals with mental health disorders manage symptoms, improve coping strategies, and develop social skills.
  • Developmental delays: Children with developmental delays may benefit from early intervention OT to improve fine motor skills, sensory processing, and self-care abilities.
  • Chronic conditions: OT can assist individuals with chronic illnesses like arthritis or multiple sclerosis in managing symptoms and maintaining independence in daily life.

"There’s such a wide continuum of care that an occupational therapist can work in. We may be called in to assist right when they get sick, or it could be in the middle, or it could be near the end. And that helps us determine what kind of treatments to focus on and decide which strategies will get them back to what they were doing."

Common Misconceptions About Occupational Therapy

#1 – Occupational therapists provide employment or career advice.

One misunderstanding Leah frequently encounters is patients who think she’s there to provide career counseling. "It’s hard when we're trying to work with patients who aren’t sure who we are or what we do because they’re never heard of occupational therapy before. Sometimes they'll ask if I’m there to help them get a job." But she does her best to explain her role, how OT works, and how she can help them achieve their healthcare goals.

#2 – That the occupational therapist will have an easy "fix" or "solution" for the patient.

Another challenge Leah encounters are patients who think occupational therapists are there to "fix" a problem. The truth is, the process is a lot more involved than that and requires the patient to be an active participant. "What we do is help the patient become a problem solver. We're there to guide them along the way, but ultimately they're going to be the ones to take these tools and lessons we teach them to start being independent. We're not going to be there when they're independent. They won't need us, and that's kind of the point."

#3 – That once you accept occupational therapy, you’ll need it forever.

Leah says some patients are reluctant to start occupational therapy because they’re afraid that they’re signing up for a lifetime of treatment. "Some patients think that they'll need therapy forever to maintain the gains they make. But once a person gets therapy and learns what they need to do, then they can be their own therapist and achieve independence. That’s the goal."

Occupational Therapist Assisting Elderly Woman with Daily Hygiene Routine

How to Become an Occupational Therapist

To be a successful occupational therapist, Leah says a person should have the following strengths:

#1 Flexibility – Every patient, every case, every setting is unique, so a good OT needs to be able to adapt and do so quickly to provide the best patient care. 

#2 Solid Communication Skills – "Not only do you need to explain to your patients what you're doing and why but you also have to clearly communicate your recommendations to the interdisciplinary team treating each patient." 

#3 Passion for the Profession – "Having a lot of passion for what you do is helpful because you're ultimately an advocate for your patient."

What Kind of Degree Does an Occupational Therapist Need?

To become an occupational therapist, one needs a master's degree in occupational therapy from an accredited program though many programs also offer doctoral degrees as well.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Occupational Therapist?

The path to becoming an occupational therapist usually involves completing a bachelor's degree (4 years) followed by a master's or doctoral program in occupational therapy (2-3 years). Overall, it takes around 6-7 years of education and clinical training.

Occupational Therapist Salary: How Much Do Occupational Therapists Make?

According to US News, the median salary for occupational therapists in 2022 was $93,180. Additionally, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects over 16,000 new jobs to be added to the field between 2022 and 2032, which is a growth rate of 12%.

Occupational Therapist Jobs: What Kinds of Places Hire Occupational Therapists?

Occupational therapists work in various settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, community health centers, nursing homes, mental health facilities, and private practice.

Advice for Future Occupational Therapists

First and foremost, Leah suggests volunteering in a variety of different settings to get firsthand experience about what kind of situation might be a good fit: "You can do clinical fieldwork in different settings, including hospitals, rehab or skilled nursing facilities, and pediatric clinics. Even in the community, there's different OT outpatient clinics and mental health facilities." Getting some exposure will help to determine which path is going to be the best for you.

Another thing Leah says an occupational therapist needs to be prepared for is the fact that many people—even individuals working in the healthcare profession—don't really understand what occupational therapy is or what occupational therapists do: "A big challenge is defining who we are and what we do to whomever we're working with… And it’s not just the patient population, but also professionals who work in the healthcare field in other disciplines who don’t really understand what OT is." 

But at the end of the day, Leah is still passionately committed to her work as an occupational therapist and thinks it’s an exciting and fulfilling career: "You never really stop learning but the focus stays the same. It’s always about how can we get these patients back to what they were doing before, how can we improve their situation, facilitate them getting stronger, getting better, getting them back to a great quality of life."

Physical Therapy

Meet Leena Uranwala, a UCLA Health Physical Therapist

"It has been a very rewarding career. We get to be part of people's journeys at a pivotal point in their lives."

A one-time dancer who had sustained some injuries, Leena found that studying physical therapy was a way to not only learn more about herself and her body but also to pass that knowledge along to others. 

Physical Therapist UCLA Health Leena Uranwala Portrait

"When I went back to school later in life, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in healthcare, but as a former dancer, I also really enjoyed analyzing and teaching movement." Physical therapy allowed to her combine these two passions into a career dedicated to helping others. And her patients continue to motivate her every day.

"I've had patients who have inspired me and taught me so much about what a person is capable of, demonstrating patience and perseverance in some incredible situations." 

She also believes her study of physical therapy has helped her to continue evolving: "The education has been invaluable. When people learn more about how their body or their nervous system works, they are more empowered to make it work better for them."

What Is a Physical Therapist?

"Physical therapy is a healing art, and we consider ourselves movement specialists."

Physical therapists (PTs) are healthcare professionals who specialize in restoring movement and function in individuals affected by injury, illness, or disability.

"Our specialty is the neuro-musculo-skeletal system and our role is to educate patients on how to optimize the function of that system."

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Physical therapists evaluate a patient’s movement patterns and impairments, diagnose movement dysfunctions, and develop individualized treatment plans. They use a variety of techniques such as therapeutic exercises, manual therapy, and modalities to improve mobility, reduce pain, and prevent disability.

"There's so much scope within our practice, but whatever we're dealing with— whether it's helping a patient recovering from surgery or addressing a chronic condition—we're trying to facilitate healing and optimize a patient's physical function within their daily lives," Leena explains. "However we look at a person very holistically, because what they do in life and what kind positions and postures they might have to sustain are all factors that may affect their outcomes."

When and Why Do Patients Need Physical Therapy

"There's a wide range of conditions that physical therapists can treat. From pediatrics to pelvic health, there are fantastic specialists who can help."

Patients typically require physical therapy when they experience impairments in movement, balance, strength, or mobility.

PT may be recommended for various reasons, including:

  • Injury rehabilitation: After surgeries, fractures, falls or sports injuries, physical therapy helps patients regain strength, flexibility, and range of motion.
  • Chronic pain management: PT can alleviate pain and improve function for individuals with conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia, headaches, neck pain, or back pain.
  • Neurological conditions: Patients with neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke, or spinal cord injuries benefit from PT to enhance mobility, coordination, and balance.
  • Cardiovascular conditions: PT is crucial for patients recovering from heart attacks, strokes, or cardiac surgeries to improve cardiovascular health, endurance, and functional capacity.
  • Pre- and post-surgical care: PT plays a vital role in preparing patients for surgery, optimizing their physical condition, and facilitating recovery afterward.
  • Pediatric conditions: PT is used to assist infants and children with developmental disorders, sensory processing issues, and conditions like scoliosis.
  • Pelvic health: Physical therapy can help treat incontinence, pelvic pain, postpartum issues. 

Leena believes that physical therapy is an often overlooked but extremely effective therapeutic tool: "Before resorting to opioid medication or expensive procedures and surgeries, give physical therapy a try first. Let the body and mind heal itself." 

Misconceptions About Physical Therapy

#1 – If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not making progress.

"The "no pain, no gain" adage is outdated. It's more nuanced than that," Leena insists. "I always tell my patients that there's good pain and there's bad pain. Sometimes we need to push through some discomfort to increase strength or range of motion. But often it is a signal that's telling us to make a change. Not moving correctly or holding ourselves in poor postures can worsen symptoms." 

#2 – That the physical therapist can "fix" the patient’s problem.

Leena calls this the "fix me" mentality but says that today’s practice of physical therapy is much more evolved. "Physical therapy has come a long way. Our profession used to be based on more passive treatments. But educating patients about their own body and how to facilitate their own healing is where we are and where we're going."

#3 – That physical therapy is limited to the in-person session with the therapist.

Not true, Leena says!  "It's a team effort, and the patient has to be involved for it to be the most effective. If we're only seeing a patient for 30 minutes once or twice a week, what are they doing with the rest of their week? They've got to do a lot on their own to see optimal results."

Physical Therapist Assisting Patient With Walking Exercises

How to Become a Physical Therapist

What qualities make someone a good candidate for the role of physical therapist? Leena says they need empathy, creativity, and the ability to multitask.

#1 Empathy – "Patients come from all walks of life and all kinds of situations. You really have to understand where they're coming from and what they want to get out of their physical therapy experience."

#2 Creativity – "Because every case is unique—you’re dealing with different ages, genders, occupations, lifestyles, comorbidities—you really have to look at each case individually, get creative, and problem solve. The same exercises and techniques aren’t going to work for everybody." 

#3 Ability to Multitask – "Whatever setting you’re working in—whether it's inpatient or outpatient or even in somebody's home—it’s going to be pretty dynamic and you need to be able to juggle a lot of things at the same time."

What Kind of Degree Does a Physical Therapist Need?

To become a physical therapist, one needs a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from an accredited program.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Physical Therapist

Becoming a physical therapist typically requires completing a bachelor's degree (4 years) followed by a Doctor of Physical Therapy program (3 years). In total, it takes about 7 years of education and clinical training.

Physical Therapist Salary: How Much Do Physical Therapists Make?

According to US News, the median salary for physical therapists in 2022 was $97,720. Additionally, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects over 37000 new jobs to be added to the field between 2022 and 2032, which is a growth rate of 15%.

Physical Therapist Jobs: What Kinds of Places Hire Physical Therapists?

Physical therapists work in various settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, sports medicine facilities, nursing homes, schools, and home health agencies.

Advice for Future Physical Therapists

As with many professions, Leena says volunteering (and doing it early) is a good idea: "Definitely go and get some experience. Try to work as an aide or volunteer. Try to see some different settings. Shadowing is very important, because you learn the day-to-day of different environments, which can vary significantly."

Getting firsthand experience in these environments will also provide some much-needed insight into the complexities of modern healthcare, something every physical therapist should be prepared to deal with: "I wish I would have known more about how the medical system works and how physical therapy is often undervalued, especially by insurance companies. It’s frustrating because we can produce amazing outcomes by helping patients avoid surgery or other expensive treatments, but this is not easily quantified."

Still Leena loves her job as a physical therapist and is looking forward to seeing it evolve in the future: "I have a lot of hope for our profession. It’s just a matter of promoting it and having patients understand what we do so they can advocate for themselves and ask for physical therapy as an option."

UCLA Health Outpatient Rehab Services

UCLA rehabilitation services include physical therapy, occupational therapy, hand therapy and offer custom prosthetics and orthotics. Highly-trained specialists use the latest, most advanced treatments to help patients achieve their highest quality of life possible and there are several locations in the Southern California area:

Learn More About Rehabilitation at UCLA Health