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The importance of Purpose and Function as Therapy – Part 1

As an occupational therapist (OT), I am used to having to explain that occupational therapy does not mean I give people “work therapy” or help them find a better job. Readers of my articles know that occupational therapy is a uniquely diversified allied health profession that rehabilitates people of all ages, and in all areas of functional activity. Our training varies by our schools but overall, OT is more than just physical rehabilitation, we have roots in psychiatry and our education is strong in neurosciences. We are human skills specialists who address “occupations” that fall into these areas:

  • ADLs. Activities of Daily Living – fundamental tasks of self-care

  • IADLs. - Activities to support ADLs within the home and community

  • Rest/Sleep.

  • Education/Productivity.

  • Work/industry ergonomics and “work hardening” after an injury to help people return to work

  • Mental/Behavioral Health – Community-based and in-patient settings

  • Leisure/Play ( this is fundamental to child development physically, socially, and emotionally)

  • Aging safely at home and community

  • Social participation in relationships, family and community

OTs must master knowledge of human anatomy, neuroanatomy, physiology, and psychology to provide physical and mental/behavioral rehabilitation to people who have lost the ability to perform the tasks that fall into the above areas after an injury, illness, or progressive disease. It is easy to take for granted how many systems are involved in just tying one’s shoes until it is impacted by Down’s Syndrome, a stroke, ALS, traumatic head injury, or arthritis. OTs have a variety of clinical skills that allow us to work in several treatment settings and populations. We utilize our hands, use multiple types of tools and methods to mitigate pain, teach independence, improve movement and facilitate optimal function.

OTs are easily found in hospitals, neuro and physical rehabilitation centers, state mental hospitals, schools, pediatric clinics, community mental health services, home health, hand therapy and work hardening clinics AND MORE! OTs also specialize in niche therapies, such as workplace ergonomics, home modification for aging in place, functional movement clinics, vision therapy, driving rehabilitation, high-tech orthotics and prosthetics, art and music therapy studios, wellness and telehealth practices. The possibilities are virtually endless!

I have always believed that OTs would be best referred to as FUNCTIONAL THERAPISTS because of the misunderstood term of “occupations” as work rather than ALL activities of purpose. When asking for a referral for OT, don’t be surprised if your physician refers to us as “PT” or what we do as “physical therapy” because they think of it as a verb, but PT and OT are like brands of physical rehabilitation, the difference between the two can be briefly explained by a short list and a long list.

The short and well understood list is that PT is focused on walking and gross motor movement (sports medicine, athletic injuries, joint replacements, and walking after injuries, strokes, and birth defects).

The long OT list is more diverse and therefore more complicated to explain, but we are “whole-person” and community re-integration oriented.

Despite similarities and differences, OT and PT disciplines are rehabilitation allies and include SLP (speech and Language Pathologists aka: speech therapists). At times, there is some overlap between disciplines depending on the specialization of the clinicians but optimally, all three disciplines collaborate toward whole-person rehabilitation so our patients get the best outcomes.

If you are not living your best life after an injury, degenerative condition, pain or dysfunction, find an OT specialized in your condition and request a referral from your primary care practitioner. Don’t wait, INTEGRATE your life today!

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