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Occupational Therapy: Training the Body and Mind After an Injury

Consider all the activities you do from the time you wake up until you go to sleep: getting in and out of bed, dressing, showering, combing your hair and brushing your teeth, cooking, driving, working, going to school, parenting, exercising and relaxing. The list goes on and on. All of these activities require multiple skills and actions from our body and mind.

If an injury or medical condition occurs that disrupts your ability to perform daily tasks, life can become challenging, confusing, painful and difficult. This is where occupational therapy plays a major role in a person’s recovery and restorative function. In simple terms, occupational therapy helps people of all ages regain and maintain functional independence to do the activities they need and want to do.

Occupational therapists believe that occupations (activities) describe who we are and how we feel about ourselves. If you are unable to do the things you want or need to do to live and enjoy your life, your general well-being may be affected.

Occupational therapists have years of education – from master’s degrees to doctorates – and the clinical experience to help their clients and patients develop the physical skills and functions needed to perform daily living activities and be as independent as possible. Additionally, they work on underlying skills, such as thinking/concentrating, strength, balance and trunk (core) control.

What is the difference between a PT and an OT?

The fields of occupational therapy and physical therapy are often confused. While both roles provide essential hands-on rehabilitative work to help clients perform everyday tasks as independently as possible, each field takes a diverse approach in helping people get back to their usual way of life.

Physical therapists and occupational therapists often work side by side, addressing similar conditions using similar treatment methods and tools. With so many similarities, it should come as no surprise that occupational and physical therapy was once the same. During World War I, reconstruction aides were tasked with “rehabilitating” veterans.

Both disciplines focus on the development, improvement and prevention of further decline of a person’s physical function and ability to perform daily living tasks. Both professions strive to optimize a patient’s independence and quality of life, and both can work with patients across the lifespan.

Over the years, both disciplines have continued to develop. Today, the main difference between physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT) is that PT focuses on gross (big) motor function and the ability to move the body, while OT focuses on fine (small) motor skills and the ability to perform activities of daily living.

Physical therapists (PTs) treat the patient’s impairment from a mechanical perspective. PTs are trained extensively in body mechanics and how different body systems are impacted by motion, position and exercise. Interventions focus on improving strength, balance, range of motion, endurance and movement. This is accomplished through exercises and re-education of the muscles and nerves to restore normal function. Specific goals include strengthening muscles and improving endurance, walking and balance.

Occupational therapists (OTs) treat the patient from a whole-life perspective, focusing on all aspects of daily living activities. OTs receive a broad scope of training in many areas that aim to help patients engage in activities in areas such as self-care, homemaking, leisure, play and socialization. Interventions may include physical exercise, but may also focus on areas such as problem solving, memory, organization, keeping a routine, social skills and using community resources.

In the physical rehabilitation and hospital setting, OTs often work with those who have sustained a traumatic body and/or brain injury, suffered a stroke or other neurological impairment, and are recovering from surgery or an illness that has impaired their ability to care for themselves. OT can begin as early as in the intensive care unit and continue into a rehabilitation or skilled nursing facility to at-home or outpatient therapy.

OTs treating patients in inpatient rehabilitation, such as the Rehabilitation Hospital of Northern Arizona, set goals for high-level independence. Patients are seen for training with intensive techniques to complete activities of daily living using adaptive equipment, improving strength and family education. OTs help these patients achieve the highest level of function possible for their return home.

An occupational therapist can also help your family, friends, teachers and employers support your fuller participation in your day-to-day activities, at home and in the community.

Patients receiving OT on an outpatient or in-home basis continue the work they began on the rehabilitation unit or during the acute stay. These patients have therapy usually two to three days a week to make additional gains and fine-tune motor function as they return to their lives at home, work or school.

The highest quality rehabilitation care is available right here in Northern Arizona. The Rehabilitation Hospital of Northern Arizona, located on McMillian Mesa, is the only short-term acute-care inpatient rehabilitation hospital in the region. Treatment plans are individualized and most patients participate in a minimum of three hours of physical and occupational therapy a day. 

The 40-bed rehabilitation hospital provides intensive rehabilitation services to people recovering from disabling diseases or injuries, such as strokes, brain, spinal cord and orthopedic injuries.

For more information, visit rhna.ernesthealth.com or call 928-774-7070. Follow on Facebook at Rehabilitation Hospital of Northern Arizona. FBN

By Sydnie Bahl, P.T., D.P.T.  


Sydnie Bahl, P.T., D.P.T., is the director of Therapy Operations at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Northern Arizona.


One Response to Occupational Therapy: Training the Body and Mind After an Injury

  1. Melissa Hart April 29, 2019 at 4:35 AM #

    I find it interesting that a PT wrote this article. It would explain some of the misconceptions in this article. Gross motor vs. Fine motor as the definition Of OT and PT? I’m sorry but we do both. There is also no mention of skills such as vision or swallowing. OT is also the only therapy discipline that has a psych background. Overall this is one of the better articles but missing some big components.

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