Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy Explained

by Stanley Paul, OTR/L, PhD, MD; and Jeff Houck, PT, PhD

Occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT) are often confused because of the rehabilitative nature of the professions.

Both occupational therapists and physical therapists work with people of all ages to help them regain function after an injury or illness, with the goal of improving their overall health.

The main difference between these occupations is where the focus lies. The primary goal of a physical therapist is to improve a patient’s ability to move their body, while an occupational therapist strives to improve a patient’s ability to manage activities of daily living.

Terms Defined

Physical therapy is the hands-on evaluation and treatment of movement dysfunction through exercise prescriptions and patient education with an eye toward strengthening, restoration and optimal performance.

Occupational therapy is the evaluation and treatment of people who have injuries, illnesses or disabilities to help them develop or regain skills needed for the activities of daily living, such as bathing and showering, grooming, dressing, getting out of bed and feeding themselves.

The Similarities

The similarities between the two professions stem from the basic and clinical training required for each. Both rely heavily on health sciences associated with movement, which include biomechanics, kinesiology and motor control. A basic understanding of common diseases that influence movement require knowledge of anatomy, neuroscience and physiology.

Both physical and occupational therapy rely on these basic sciences to help patients recover from injury or surgery, manage chronic conditions, and maintain a healthy lifestyle through prevention and wellness programs.

As a result, these similarities in training often mean physical therapists and occupational therapists do the same work. For example, 85% of certified hand therapists are occupational therapists and 15% are physical therapists.

In addition, both forms of therapy work with patients who have experienced spinal cord injuries, a stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and childhood neurological diseases – and both work in the area of occupational health and safety to prevent injury and promote healthy behaviors.  

The path to becoming either an OT or PT requires completion of an accredited graduate program and passing a licensing exam. Physical therapists receive a doctorate in physical therapy after two to three years of post-bachelor’s training, while occupational therapists complete either a master’s degree (MOT) or a doctorate in occupational therapy (OTD) prior to a licensing exam.

The Differences

Differences start to emerge with the goals and focus of these related disciplines:

DPT student works with an athlete in a gym

The Role of Physical Therapists

Physical therapy traditionally focuses on the diagnosis of movement dysfunction and physical restoration of the body to enhance quality of life. This has led to a significant role in management of common musculoskeletal injuries.

Recently, how mental health influences recovery and disease management has also become a focus. Physical therapy typically offers multimodal care to personalize the experience for patients. The focus is to meet each person’s individual goals through restorative approaches and return to preferred physical activities. 

Physical therapists typically do the following:

OTD student works with a patient in their kitchen

The Role of Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapy focuses on retraining to perform functional tasks and integration into new or previous social roles (e.g. work). Therefore, clinical training for occupational therapists focuses more on psychosocial issues, activities of daily living, and reintegration with work roles. 

Occupational therapists typically work on and provide recommendations for:

Occupational therapists can help patients ranging from a child with autism, an older adult following a stroke and a young person who had a traumatic brain injury to an athlete who had a shoulder injury, a wounded warrior with a double amputation, and an older adult with arthritis who wants to live independently.

Where do OTs and PTs Typically Work?

Physical and occupational therapists work in similar settings:

Work Settings for Physical Therapists

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest employers of physical therapists in 2022 were:

They may work in the following arenas/areas of treatment:

Recently, physical therapy has focused on behavior change as an outcome to prevent and help manage chronic conditions. 

Work Settings for Occupational Therapists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the largest employers of physical therapists in 2022 were:

OT services are provided by licensed occupational therapy clinicians (occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants) in a wide range of locations, including:

OT clinicians may work as consultants or as assistive technology and health information providers, and in the areas of human-centered design, addressing the health of communities, education (e.g. schools, higher education), health promotion programs, driving and community mobility, and low-vision therapy.

High Job Satisfaction

Both personal stories and national rankings suggest high job satisfaction in physical and occupational therapy.

U.S. News & World Report ranked occupational therapy as the #4 best healthcare job and #19 best overall job in the U.S. in 2024. Similarly, the same rankings placed physical therapy as the #7 best healthcare job and #30 best job overall.

Job Outlook

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2023), employment of both physical therapists and occupational therapists is projected to grow more than 14% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. Over 10,000 openings for occupational therapists and 15,000 openings for physical therapists are projected for each year. 

The median salary for each profession is very similar, with physical therapists earning a slightly higher median annual income (see table below). However, for a doctoral-trained OT salary estimates are between $80,000 and $95,000 (ZipRecruiter, 2023). In addition, salaries vary between different states, with the state of Washington paying the highest and North Carolina paying at the lower end of the spectrum for occupational therapists.

Physical Therapy Occupational Therapy
2021 Median Pay $95,620 per year
$45.97 per hour
$85,570 per year
$41.14 per hour
Number of Jobs, 2021 238,800 133,900
Job Outlook, 2021-31 17% (Much faster than average) 14% (Much faster than average)
Employment Change, 2021-31 40,400 18,600

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Learn More

Still have questions? George Fox University’s Occupational Therapy Doctorate and Doctor of Physical Therapy sites offer more insight into the roles of the professions, the courses of study required to earn the respective degrees, and the financial aid available.