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Physiotherapy vs. Occupational Therapy – What’s The Difference? – Physiotherapy & Alternative Medicine

Physiotherapy vs. Occupational Therapy – What’s The Difference?

I was recently referred to an Occupational Therapist at work.
Having had physiotherapy in the past I assumed they were pretty much the same thing.
Although both professions do help people in very similar ways-
Here’s what I found…
the roles are actually quite different.
Because it seemed occupational therapy was something I was going to be taking part in for a while,
I decided to do some more research into what makes it different from physiotherapy.
So what is the difference between physiotherapy and occupational therapy?
Well, the biggest difference is the fact that:
A physiotherapist treats a patient’s actual injury or impairment (a broken bone for example). 
An Occupational therapist works on treating the whole person so they can lead a normal daily life.
While this answer is enough to know the difference between the two,
I decided to dig a little deeper to find out if this distinction had much of an impact on me as a patient.
Read on to find out what I learned.

How Physiotherapy And Occupational Therapy Differ

The goal of a physiotherapist is to get their patient back to a good level of mobility after an injury or impairment.

This is usually after an accident or other life-changing event, such as surgery or a car crash.

They work to get a patient back to a healthy state of mobility by using a range of biomechanical exercises, often with the goal of improving joint mobility, strengthening bones, or easing pain through exercise.

However, physiotherapists also help to prevent injury or surgery by attempting to correct an issue through exercise and an awareness of how to prevent future issues.

A good example of this is someone whose hips might be out of alignment, and without physiotherapy they would likely need either a single or double hip replacement.

Physiotherapy is also useful in helping people to manage mobility issues without relying on prescription medication, which can become very expensive.

An occupational therapist, on the other hand, works to treat a patient holistically, by treating their whole body as one unit in need of repair. This means they don’t just focus on the injury or issue, but also look at the patient’s environment and daily roles to find better ways of managing them.

This is particularly important for people with long-term physical or mobility impairments who can’t simply be treated and then return to their old life.

One major part of an occupational therapist’s role is improving mental health along with physical. For example, if a serious injury prevents you from exercising like you used to, they will help you find ways to manage the impact this has on your mental health.

Their job is as much about wellbeing and mental clarity as it is about physical rehabilitation. An occupational therapist looks for ways to help a patient manage changes to their lives, as opposed to simply treating an injury as it occurs.

The most important thing to consider when looking at the difference between the two roles is what actually needs treating.

Occupational therapy is intended for those that need to adjust to a life-changing issue and how this is going to impact their lives, hence the term “occupational,” whereas a physiotherapist works on treating and preventing injuries.

Physiotherapists do still work with long-term patients, but they use a biomechanical approach that focuses mainly on the area of injury, as opposed to taking a whole-body approach.

How Are The Two Roles The Same?

Although I’ve mentioned that there are some significant differences between the two roles, there are actually quite a lot of similarities too.

Both serve completely different areas of the healthcare industry, but it’s not uncommon for patients to be treated by both physiotherapists and occupational therapists if their impairment calls for it. Here are the main ways in which the two roles are similar:

  • Both roles focus on educating patients on how to prevent further injury in the future. This will often be done by teaching the patient a range of exercises to maintain flexibility and joint mobility, especially in problem areas that might have led to the original injury.
  • Both professions also work on educating patients about the healing process. Many people likely have a basic knowledge of how their body works, but therapists provide information on how long injuries take to heal, and how your body does it. This can often help patients deal with mental health issues, such as depression, that might arise from not knowing the future.
  • Both physiotherapists and occupational therapists undergo extensive training in human anatomy and muscle structure, meaning they are experts in how to treat the body. Their professions straddle an interesting line between sports therapy, medicine, and mental health professional.
  • Both roles often form part of a larger interdisciplinary team involving doctors, nurses, outpatient staff, social workers, and language therapists.
  • Both work in very similar environments, ranging from hospitals, adult care facilities, schools, private centers, and some even perform home visits.

As you can see, there are quite a few similarities between the two roles, but they are also quite different.

If a patient has a long-term or serious health condition, it’s likely that they will see both a physiotherapist and occupational therapist as part of their treatment, but which one they are treated by will depend on what it is that needs altering in their lives.

If it’s just recovery after an injury, then a physiotherapist is likely the best person, however if it’s adjusting to a permanent impairment, then an occupational therapist is the one to see.

When To See A Physiotherapist

As I previously mentioned, physiotherapy isn’t just about reactive treatment, it’s also about proactive preventative measures.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to wait until a physician recommends you visit a physiotherapist, as you can book them privately if you feel you need treatment.Physiotherapist stretching patient's arm

Here are some of the most common non-injury related reasons to visit a physiotherapist.

  1. You’re In Constant Pain

Easily the most common reason people visit a physiotherapist is because they’re in constant pain.

Whether this is still left over from an old injury that never quite healed, or is related to all-too common posture issues, persistent pain can have a massive effect on the way people live their lives.

A physiotherapist will work out the best treatment plan based on the:

  • location,
  • intensity,
  •  persistence of your pain

Their plan will likely be a combination of mobility exercises, massage, muscle manipulation, and education.

This will make sure you know how to identify and deal with any issues in the future. The objective here is to make sure you don’t need to rely on pain medication forever.

  1. You’ve Lost Much Of Your Flexibility

Many of us work desk jobs now, and sitting around for 8 or more hours at a desk can have a massive impact on your overall flexibility.

This is a particular issue if you use a computer a lot, or if you have poor quality office equipment.

Regardless of your age, people should be able to at least touch their toes, so if you can’t then it might be time to see a professional.

The physiotherapist will start by working out what bodily issues have caused your loss of flexibility.

For example, if it’s posture issues, then they will prescribe a series of exercises to improve and strengthen your back muscles, all while attempting to realign them.

This is a slow process, but hopefully results in you being able to bend again.

  1. You Seem To Have Lost Balance

Our bodies are complicated things, and balance is a fine combination of vision and touch, but is mostly controlled by the inner ear system (also known as the vestibular system).

Although a physiotherapist isn’t the person you should see to treat any problems with your inner ear, you might have previously been told these issues are permanent or untreatable, leaving you in a wobbly position.

This is where the physiotherapist comes in. They won’t look to treat the cause, but will teach you ways to manage the symptoms.

This involves training your central nervous system to compensate for a lack of inner balance by using eye, neck, and head exercises.

Physiotherapists often provide this treatment either as an alternative to surgery, or as part of the recovery process.

When To See An Occupational Therapist

So an occupational therapist largely covers the same areas as a physiotherapist, but they often focus on providing treatment to patients with permanent or life-changing issues.

Part of this treatment is improving a patient’s mental wellbeing, which can be as simple as giving them a sense of achievement again.Occupational Therapist with a patient

For many patients this makes quite a difference to their recovery speeds, and the way in which they deal with their impairment.

These are some of the most common issues that call for an occupational therapist.

  1. You Have A Physical Disability

Learning to deal with a physical impairment can be incredibly challenging, especially seeing as our world is structured for the convenience of physically able people.

An occupational therapist can help someone with physical disabilities learn to cope with this fact, from things as simple as doing things around the house to learning how to cope without something they rely on, such as a wheelchair.

  1. You Have Mental Health Issues

Awareness of the impact of mental health issues has greatly improved in recent years, but much like a physical impairment, living with a mental health issue can be very challenging.

An occupational therapist helps by providing coping mechanisms, and educating people on how to deal with challenges that others might not face. This is a good example of how their holistic approach differs to a physiotherapist.

  1. You’re Getting Older

Aging can present its own range of problems that require getting used to. This can be anything from mobility issues to the mental impact of loneliness, but this is where an occupational therapist comes in to help.

They will look at activities a patient finds difficult, whether it’s getting around the house, dressing themselves, or making food, and look for alternative ways to manage the task.

A big part of this is helping the patient to deal with their loss of independence by finding ways to give it back.

  1. You Have Learning Difficulties

Much as with physical impairments, the world isn’t designed for the convenience of those with learning difficulties.

However, they deserve as much independence as they can be given, and this often comes from teaching them alternative ways to perform tasks that others find easy.

Much of their role in this situation focus on education and coping with mental health problems, such as anger, frustration, and depression.

Do Insurance Policies Cover Either Of These Treatments?

The short answer is that this will depend on the insurance company, and can vary even by policy.

It also entirely depends on what the reason is for seeking treatment. For example, many policies include either physiotherapy or occupational therapy as standard if it’s part of a larger inpatient treatment plan (such as after surgery).

Both treatments are often included as bolt-on extras on many policies, and there may be caps on how much you can claim back in expenses, or how many treatment sessions your plan will cover.

It’s definitely worth looking into this when taking out an insurance policy because both forms of therapy can be very helpful in the unfortunate event of an accident.

As I said earlier, it is possible to book both physiotherapists and occupational therapists privately if your healthcare won’t cover it.

The cost of this will vary by state, and by individual therapist, but don’t expect to pay less than $100 a session for a well-qualified therapist.

Obviously, this is quite expensive, and will only add up with more sessions. However, if it’s not covered under insurance, or you don’t have a medical referral, then it’s definitely an option to consider.


Hopefully the information here answers the main differences between physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

The most important thing I’ve learned to remember is that it depends entirely on what actually needs treating.

If it’s recovering mobility or flexibility related to muscular or skeletal issues, then a physiotherapist is the one to call.

If it’s a more holistic approach you need however, one that focuses on mental and cognitive health along with physical, then call an occupational therapist.

It’s also important to remember that you can access both professions either through a medical referral or privately.

For example, if you have muscular issues you’re unlikely to visit a physician, but in this situation you can arrange your own meeting with a physiotherapist.

I’ve found this fact very useful because it’s meant that I haven’t had to sit around waiting for a referral from my doctor.

So if you find yourself in need of rehabilitation, try arranging your own appointment instead of waiting.

Related Questions

What Is Occupational Therapy Used For?

Occupational therapy is not just about improving someone’s health after an injury.

It also focuses on improving their sensory and cognitive abilities, training motor skills, improving self-esteem and confidence, and renewing a patient’s sense of accomplishment.

Injury often leads to mental health problems due to the impact the event has on a patient’s life, so occupational therapists take this into account when treating.

Is An Occupational Therapist A Doctor?

Technically, some occupational therapists might hold a doctorate, but they aren’t medical physicians.

The current career requirement is a master’s degree in a relevant field, but this doesn’t mean they’re any less skilled than a medical doctor.

Much like with any other career, their ability comes from specialization in a certain area, and they don’t need a medical doctorate because it doesn’t involve them prescribing medication.

How Long Does It Take To Become Either A Physiotherapist Or Occupational therapist?

Both careers involve having to complete a master’s degree after finishing a bachelor’s.

In short, this means around 5-6 years of college to be considered a fully qualified therapist.

Some people might then go on to complete a doctorate for further training, and this can last anywhere up to another 5 or 6 years. Both careers are very highly trained in their chosen field.

What’s The Difference Between Physical therapy And Physiotherapy?

While both do very similar jobs, a physiotherapist is a more “hands on” approach to treatment (such as involving massage), whereas a physical therapist commonly leans more towards an exercise-based approach to treatment.

That said, this is more of a language difference than an occupational one, as physiotherapy is the term more commonly used outside of the USA for both roles.