Winter 2021/2022

Ask a Clinician: What Is the Difference Between Physical and Occupational Therapies?

Healthesystems’ team of diverse clinicians, experts in pharmacotherapy, physical, and occupational medicine, answer commonly asked questions.

Physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT) both can play important roles in an injured worker’s recovery and return-to-work plan. They are both services that fall under the practice area of Physical Medicine. And they are both minimally invasive, nonpharmacological, physical methods of rehabilitation.

However, PT and OT are each focused on specific goals within an injured worker’s recovery process. PT focuses on achieving optimal function with the patient, while OT focuses on the adaptation of the environment or task to make the patient as independent as possible.

A physical therapist may consider factors such as...
An occupational therapist may consider factors such as...
Is the patient strong enough to move from a seated position to a standing position?
Can the patient walk 30 feet, 300 feet, or 3000 feet without needing to rest?
Does the patient have enough range of motion to reach into the upper kitchen cabinets?
Is the patient able to toilet him/herself and perform necessary hygiene? Do they need a raised toilet seat, grab bars, or a toilet aid?
Can the patient walk to his/her bathroom, brush his/her teeth, and comb his/her hair? Do they need assistance or adaptive equipment?
Is the patient able to feed him/herself? Can the patient set up, arrange, and bring food to his/her mouth? Do they need help getting a dish out of the cabinet or should dishes be stored somewhere else? Do they need utensils with large grips?

What are the benefits of PT and OT?

Physical medicine services such as PT or OT can help patients achieve something called maximum medical improvement, or MMI.

For some patients, this means resuming their pre-injury level of function. For other patients, this means the gains are as good as possible and they may never regain their pre-injury level of function.

For these patients, PT and OT can be useful in helping a patient adjust to their new normal.

Physical medicine can also be a good alternative or supplement to pain medications.

PT & OT Benefits

Achieve maximum medical improvement (MMI)

Increase independence

Adjust to post-injury “new normal”

Reduce pain medications, e.g., opioids

Shorten injury duration

Speed return-to-work

This is especially true in patients who are candidates for opioids.

Physical medicine can help shorten recovery time and prevent injuries from becoming chronic.

How do I know whether additional visits are appropriate?

The effectiveness of physical medicine services such as PT or OT on injured worker recovery can vary greatly by patient depending on a number of factors that include, among others:

Type and severity of their injury

How timely the patient began therapy

How adherent the patient has been to therapy

Duration of time between visits (e.g., large gaps of time between visits do not indicate optimal therapy)

Whether or not a surgery occurred

Presence of comorbidities

For these reasons, following a one-size-fits-all model for physical or occupational therapy is typically not clinically or cost effective, and can result in overutilization or wasteful PT or OT services on a workers’ compensation claim.

Assessing factors such as injured worker adherence to therapy, patterns in concurrent pharmacotherapy, progress being made toward certain treatment goals or milestones, or certain clinical measures, can help determine whether the patient is deriving continued benefit from PT or OT.

Watch Tate Rice, DPT, PT, MBA, explain why Range of Motion (ROM) is an important physical medicine measure.


Since 2010, the semi-annual RxInformer clinical journal has been a trusted source of timely information and guidance for workers’ comp payers on how best to manage the care of injured worker claimants and plan for the challenges that lay ahead. The publication is an important part of Healthesystems’ proactive approach to advocating for quality care of injured workers while managing the costs associated with treatment.