If you see a doctor for an injury, arthritis, back pain or even a mental health issue, you are likely to get prescriptions for physical therapy and occupational therapy. Although these may be less familiar to you than a medication, they are important components of treatment.
Commonly known as PT and OT, these treatments are not guaranteed to give instant relief, as a pill might, and they will require considerable effort on your part. In part because they do require active participation, they are more likely to make lasting positive changes in your health and life.
Occupational and physical therapists often work together, and the two treatments have similarities but also differences.
PHYSICAL THERAPY seems fairly straightforward. You have an injury, and a physical therapist helps you rehabilitate it, improve your movement and relieve your pain. In practice, though, a physical therapist treats a wide range of problems, including headaches, fractures, arthritis, amputations, heart attack, stroke, birth conditions and work or sports injuries.
You can probably find several private physical therapy or rehabilitation centers in your community. Physical therapists also work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, schools, work settings, fitness facilities and nursing homes.
Don was sent to physical therapy for treatment of a strained muscle in his thigh. The sports medicine physician provided instructions, but the physical therapist made his own diagnosis as well, examining the leg, asking questions and having Don stand from a seated position and walk across the room. He then developed a treatment plan.
The plan included stretching exercises, hands-on therapy, electro stimulation to relieve inflammation and strengthening exercises such as lunges and modified squats.
A stroke survivor or a patient requiring help with disabilities caused by Parkinson’s disease would require a different course of treatment, but the goal would be the same — to restore and improve movement and relieve pain
A physical therapist typically has completed at least three years of study in anatomy, physiology, neuroscience and pharmacology, culminating in a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree.
OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY involves a great deal more than a return to work, as the name suggests. Occupation, in this case, refers to anything people do to occupy themselves, including everyday activities and social and community interactions, as well as work life.
A person who becomes temporarily or permanently unable to handle any of these activities benefits from occupational therapy. This usually involves dealing with the social, psychological, community, environmental and physical causes and effects of an injury or illness.
A child with learning deficits can benefit from occupational therapy. So can a senior dealing with a chronic, progressive disease such as multiple sclerosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The OT approach is particularly helpful for treating mental, emotional and addiction problems.
The profession in this country developed between 1910 and 1920, challenging some of the views of mainstream scientific medicine. Many of the principles and techniques were borrowed from other fields — nursing, psychiatry, rehabilitation, social work, orthopedics and self-help.
The approach is generally holistic and patient-centered. Based on visits to the home and job sites, the therapist works with the patient and family to develop an individualized evaluation of the problem and recommendations for healthy changes that need to be made. These recommendations may include alterations in the environment as well as changes in the way tasks are performed.
Jessica, an adolescent who felt tied in knots because of an anxiety disorder, was taught the skill of task analysis: breaking down tasks, such as math homework, into achievable parts in order to reduce frustration and anxiety. The therapist also helped her learn to use lists and schedules to organize her life and develop an action plan for times when she was experiencing distress.
Marie, a senior with arthritis, needed physical therapy to ease her pain and stiffness but also occupational therapy for learning to manage everyday tasks such as lifting a skillet from a drawer.
Physical therapy and occupational therapy are frequently intertwined. In an ideal world, virtually everyone with a severe illness (and some with less serious ailments) would have both as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.