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Occupational Therapy

The basics of occupational therapy (OT)

  • Occupational therapy can help restore one’s independence in daily activities and address client specific deficits which may arise from injury, illness or age.
  • Occupational therapists work collaboratively with patients of all ages to help them accomplish tasks and reach their personal goals by engaging in purposeful therapeutic activities.
  • Occupational therapy treatments can include adapting movements, improving motor skills or hand-eye coordination, facilitating strength and endurance, modifying the environment or activity, and providing adaptive equipment to facilitate independence in activities.
  • Occupational therapists work with a wide range of diagnosis including: mental, physical, developmental or emotional conditions.
  • Occupational therapists carefully analyze physical, environmental, psychosocial, mental and cultural factors to identify barriers to activities and help the client overcome them.

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The difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy

Occupational therapists often work on a team with physical therapists, but the two roles are distinct.

  • Physical therapy helps people restore physical function.
  • Occupational therapists focus on how that function affects the ability to do things that are important to them.
  • The old saying goes, “A physical therapist will get you up and walking, but an occupational therapist will get you to dance.”

Occupational therapist certification

Occupational therapist assistants are required to have a college associates degree. Occupational therapists must have a master’s degree to begin practice.

Both therapists and assistants have to pass a certification exam. A registered occupational therapist (OTR) has to pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists exam.

What is a Certified Hand Therapist?

A Certified Hand Therapist (CHT) is a specialty certification that can be obtained by either an occupational therapist or a physical therapist. CHTs must have practiced as an occupational therapist or physical therapist for at least three years, have a minimum of 4,000 hours of direct upper extremity rehabilitation, and pass an additional certification exam. This certification demonstrates a clinician’s advanced clinical skill and knowledge in the area of upper extremity rehabilitation.

What to expect from treatment by an occupational therapist

At Spine & Sport, therapy is tailored to each individual’s needs. Occupational therapists start by evaluating strengths, challenges and medical history. They will also discuss goals with the patient.


It may take more than one session for the therapist to properly assess the patient’s situation and arrive at the level of complexity for a treatment plan. This involves determining the number of performance deficits (challenges) a person may have and the reason behind the inability to do such activities.

Care plan & treatments

The therapist then creates a treatment program with exercises and activities to address the client’s skills that need improving or adapting.

This may include a variety of treatment techniques, such as manual therapy, therapeutic exercise and patient education, to achieve the goals set out at the time of the initial evaluation. Some examples:

  • For those with fine motor skills issues (impacting hand-eye coordination), exercise might include picking things up with tweezers.
  • To adapt to motor planning difficulties (impacting ability to remember movement steps to compete a task), therapists might work on daily routines such as cutting up food or brushing teeth.

Occupational therapy sessions

Appointments typically last an hour. As treatments progress, therapists will reassess progress and adjust treatment plans as needed to keep on track with goals. Each patient’s individual progress will also determine proper duration of therapy and number of needed appointments.

Timeline of OT progress

Every person learns and progresses at her or his own speed, so treatment may last a short time or a long time.

Patients can help speed up progress by following the instructions of their occupational therapist, which may include at-home exercises. When it comes to OT, hard work and practice can make all the difference.

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Conditions and difficulties occupational therapy treats

Anyone struggling with daily routines can benefit from therapy, irrespective of specific condition or age. However, there are conditions that may restrict motor function and therefore are more likely to require occupational therapy. These include:

  • Arthritis and chronic pain.
  • Amputations.
  • Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Joint replacement.
  • Spinal cord injury.
  • Stroke.
  • Multiple sclerosis.
  • Upper extremity overuse disorders.
  • Fractures.
  • Dislocations.
  • Tendonitis.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Trigger finger.
  • Dupuytren’s disease
  • Ataxia (loss of muscle control in the arms and legs).
  • Tendon, ligament or nerve repairs.

Moreover, therapy can also help people recover from injury and regain skills. This can include providing support for adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes.

OT for older adults

As adults age or experience conditions like arthritis or Alzheimer’s disease, they often need OT to keep up skills for daily activities, such as driving, remaining independent in their home and fall prevention. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) has tip sheets on these issues and more.

For children with disabilities

OT can help children with disabilities participate fully in school and social situations. Therapists work with the child and the family to establish effective habits, such as bedtime, bathroom, morning and mealtime routines. AOTA offers helpful tip sheets on these and other child OT issues.

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