Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy: Similarities, Differences and Benefits

There are many similarities and differences between physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Find out which one works best for you.

by Deborah Yaw

When the term “physiotherapy” or “occupational therapy” is mentioned, one may wonder if they are the same thing or maybe confused with how to tell the two therapy types apart. Just as both roles involve rehabilitation, each field takes on distinct approaches for individuals.

In Malaysia, there are currently not enough physiotherapists or occupational therapists. In 2016, the Sunday Star reported that Malaysia has four times fewer occupational therapists as compared to the global average, at one OT for a population of 17,777 Malaysians.

We’ll take you through what makes both therapist types and how it can benefit your loved ones in the journey to better mobility and care.

What does a physiotherapist do?

There is a common misconception that physiotherapy is mostly for individuals who have experienced a sports or back-related injury. However, physiotherapists are also highly trained in providing individuals with physical problems beyond injury, such as disease, ailments, and even ageing.

Physiotherapy is not subject to one age group and is used by all ages, and employs a series of physical methods (exercises, massage, modifications) as alternatives to invasive treatments such as medication and surgery.

1. How does physiotherapy help?

Physiotherapist work with different areas of the body ranging from:

  • Neurological (stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s)
  • Neuromusculoskeletal ( back pain, sports-related injuries, arthritis)
  • Cardiovascular (chronic heart disease, post-heart attack rehabilitation)
  • Respiratory (asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis)

2. Who can benefit from physiotherapy?

People with certain medical conditions would also benefit from physiotherapy. Here are some examples of how physiotherapy can help individuals:

  • Cardiovascular conditions specifically chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis (CF), and post-myocardial infarction (MI)
  • Therapy for high-use body parts such as hands for carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger
  • Musculoskeletal strengthening for back pain, rotator cuff tears, and temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ)
  • Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and traumatic brain injuries
  • Pediatric conditions such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and developmental delays
  • Sports-related injuries such as concussion and tennis elbow
  • Women can also benefit from physiotherapy for pelvic floor strengthening such as incontinence and lymphedema

3. What can one expect from a physiotherapy session?

Individuals would expect to be examined and assessed in the first session, taking into consideration the nature of the problem and how one can recover faster. You may be asked to walk around and perform some actions or tasks based on your ability to gauge the level of physical receptivity.

The physiotherapist will then draw out a plan for suitable exercises and stretches to carry out at home on a regular basis to speed up the healing process.

What does an occupational therapist do?

Occupational therapists are those who help others across their lifespan to do the things they want and need through the therapeutic use of daily activities in situational conditions.

1.How does occupational therapy help and who can benefit from it?

  • Children with disabilities participating in school activities and assimilating in social situations
  • Support for elderly persons undergoing physical and cognitive changes by having alternatives to empower independent living
  • Individuals recovering from injury and requiring modification in their day-to-day work life

They enable individuals of all ages to live independently by helping them to stay healthy while recovering from their injury and get better assistance despite their illness or disability.

2. What can one expect during an occupational therapy session?

Just as physiotherapists will assess and examine, occupational therapists consult individuals on their goals and customise a plan to help improve the person’s ability to perform tasks with improvisations. At the end of a few weeks in session, the occupational therapist and individual will come to evaluate whether the goals have been met or if any modifications need to be made to the plan to achieve the final outcome.

How are both of these similar to each other?

Here are some ways physiotherapy and occupational therapy are similar.

  1. Both have the same purpose of improving an individual’s quality of life and empowering better independence and wellbeing through physical movement and diet.
  2. Sometimes doctors may recommend both physiotherapy and occupational therapy that would come in at different stages of an individual’s recovery or adaptability due to the nature of their medical condition.
  3. According to the specific needs of the individual, each therapy type provides hands-on one-to-one personalized care which would involve stretches or exercises to improve physical functions from an occupational therapist or recommended movements from a physiotherapist; for example, getting in and out of the car.
  4. Each therapy type sets goals for individuals to achieve and progress assessments to work towards.

How are they different?

As we have seen the similarities between the two and how they can be incorporated interchangeably, here are some differences between physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

Occupational therapy’s main aim is to improve a person’s fine motor and cognitive skills and ensure the most optimal ability to perform activities of daily living (ADL) such as continence management, mobility, and personal hygiene especially when a person has just recovered from a stroke and have to relearn doing meaningful daily tasks. To know more about what activities of daily living are, check out this complete guide to Activities of Daily Living here.

Physiotherapy’s main focus is to improve an individual’s gross motor skills for proper movement, mobility, and function. A good example would be when a person has undergone a hip replacement surgery and therefore, would require physiotherapy visits after. The physiotherapist will then work with the individual to help strengthen their pelvis by helping with a range of motion around the joints.

Which therapy should I decide on?

It all depends on the condition and needs of an individual. There is no one-size-fits-all for rehabilitation and one person’s conditions who is similar to another person may not require the same amount of sessions or therapy type.

Have a nagging pain that is affecting your ability to move or walk? Physiotherapy may be a good consideration. Or if you notice having a hard time performing daily tasks that would not have taken you more time than you usually have such as picking up food with a chopstick or getting dressed, occupational therapy can help with improving one’s motor skills.

At the end of the day, it is imperative to seek a doctor’s advice on the type of therapy you should pursue and not to self diagnose, less it may bring more harm than good. No matter the therapy type, they are supposed to benefit you holistically in the long run to a less painful, more independent living, whether it be indoors or outdoors.

Need therapy care for your loved one today? Chat with our Care Advisor at 016-2992188 or fill in your details below for a free consultation on how we can provide care and assistance.

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  6. Lagueux E, et al. (2018). Occupational therapy’s unique contribution to chronic pain management: A scoping review. DOI:10.1155/2018/5378451
  7. Morris DM, et al. (2018). Preparing physical and occupational therapists to be health promotion practitioners: A call for action. DOI:10.3390/ijerph15020392
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  12. Rizzo A. (2016). The role of exercise and rehabilitation in the cancer care plan.
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About the Writer
Deborah Yaw
Deborah believes that everyone has a story worth telling. Has a serious appreciation for good movies, music and spicy food.
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