What is OT / Occupational Therapy?
By Sarah Lyon, OTR/L
September 27, 2022
OT stands for “occupational therapy.” In the simplest terms, occupational therapy (OT) helps you build healthy habits to change your health.
Occupational therapists partner with you and your care team. We help you understand how your diagnosis impacts your daily life, set goals, and then guide you on your healing journey.
We’re excited to share the many dimensions of our wonderful profession. In this article, we will dive into the specifics of OT, including:
- What do occupational therapists do?
- Why is occupational therapy important?
- What are some examples of OT?
- What areas can OT help with?
- Why would a child need occupational therapy?
- What to expect when you visit an occupational therapist?
- Where do OTs work?
- Types of OT specializations
- What is an average OT salary?
- What’s the difference between OT and PT?
- Is OT supported by research?
- How to become an occupational therapy professional
- How to find an OT near you?
What do occupational therapists do?
When you change your habits, you change your health.
Occupational therapists help you do the hard work of changing how you do things—in order to improve your health.
For some of our clients, a life changing event (like a stroke or a car-accident) forces them to do things differently. We come alongside them to build new habits that will speed their recovery and enable them to participate in life as fully as possible in their new circumstances.
For our clients with chronic conditions, we help them build habits to help them manage their condition, and when possible prevent the condition from progressing.
(When possible, we want to work with you in the prevention phase. So, please come see us as early as possible.)
Why is occupational therapy important?
There have been incredible advances in healthcare when it comes to surgery, medication, and technology.
And yet, the most powerful influencer of your health is still YOU.
In our complex health care system, you are your best advocate. And, in many ways, you have the power to influence your own health.
Occupational therapy is important because we empower you to improve your health through changing your habits. We are skilled at looking at your health holistically—and help you explore evidence-based approaches to meet your goals.
What are some examples of OT?
Here are two examples examples of occupational therapy, one with a child and one with adults.
- Say your child is born with cerebral palsy and has one arm that does not work as well as the other. Oftentimes their instinct is to use that arm less—which means they are limited in how they do things.
An occupational therapist would help build habits to safely use that arm more—so they can do more things and avoid complications from non-use.
- Or say you have a stroke or spinal cord injury. Suddenly, you have to relearn how to get ready for the day (among many other things). We have learned from decades of experience and research the safest and most efficient way to do this.
Working with an OT, you’ll have the best knowledge science has to offer—and avoid learning ways of doing things that can lead to more injuries and health problems.
To see how occupational therapy helps you play an active role in managing your own health, watch our explanation of OT on YouTube!
What areas can OT help with?
Our goal is to make a long-term and tangible difference in your daily life. We do this by helping you participate in the day-to-day activities that you find meaningful.
We’ll look at the daily habits and routines that have been impacted by your health condition. We call these “activities of daily living” or “ADLs.”
Here is the complete list of the activities (ADLs) an OT can help with:
- Bathing and Showering
- Care of Others
- Care of Pets
- Child Rearing
- Communication Management
- Driving and Community Mobility
- Eating and Swallowing
- Financial Management
- Functional Mobility
- Health Management and Maintenance
- Home Establishment and Maintenance
- Meal Preparation and Clean Up
- Personal Device Care
- Personal Hygiene and Grooming
- Religious and Spiritual Activities and Expressions
- Rest and Sleep
- Safety Procedures and Emergency Responses
- Sexual Activity
- Social Participation
- Toileting and Toilet Hygiene
Why would a child need occupational therapy?
Many people are first introduced to occupational therapy through a referral for their child. Pediatric occupational therapists work with children of all ages in a variety of settings.
OTs help children participate in age-appropriate daily activities, when doing so is made difficult by a health condition.
In pediatric occupational therapy, we strive to understand each child’s unique strengths to help them navigate whatever challenges they face. We also closely follow the ever-evolving research on childhood conditions, so that we can provide the most up-to-date care possible.
What to expect when you visit an occupational therapist?
An occupational therapist’s work varies across settings, but no matter what setting you see an OT in, our care tends to follow this flow:
Occupational therapy evaluation
It all starts with an evaluation, where your occupational therapist collects information on your health history, health status, and any activities that are currently limited. We will also listen and ask you questions about your goals.
Occupational therapists have access to an incredible number of standardized OT assessments, many of which are targeted at specific diagnoses.
The OT then uses this information to work with you (and/or your family or caregivers) to create a plan of care (POC). A POC includes specific goals–both short term and long term—as well as the treatment techniques the OT will employ to help the patient achieve those goals.
Occupational therapy treatment
Subsequent treatments focus on some combination of providing physical, emotional, and/or cognitive interventions to help the patient achieve their goals.
Therapists also consider whether modification of the environment (and/or certain activities) may help set someone up for success.
There is so much to discuss when it comes to treatment, I am going to refer you to these two posts as a starting point:
Discharge from occupational therapy
After a certain point, you will be “discharged” from OT. When someone is discharged from occupational therapy treatment, it means that they no longer need the skilled oversight of a therapist to continue making progress.
However, it does not mean the road to recovery or change is over.
Our goal throughout OT is to empower you and caregivers to manage your health condition—and you should leave OT with a self-management plan.
Where do OTs work?
There are 130,000 occupational therapist jobs and approximately 50,000 occupational therapy assistant and aid jobs in the United States
You can visualize where OTs work in the graph below, which is derived from the AOTA 2015 Salary and Workforce Survey.
Here are links to more info on each setting:
- Hospitals/Acute Care
- Long-term Care/Skilled Nursing Facilities
- Outpatient Clinics
- Home Health
- Early Intervention
- Mental Health
- Community Settings
Where OTs Work by % in Each Setting
*Percentages derived from the AOTA 2015 Salary and Workforce Survey.
Types of OT specializations
The scope of occupational therapy is broad. For this reason, many practitioners opt to pursue advanced certification in specific areas of interest.
A great way to learn about OT specialization (and the related evidence) is on the OT Potential Podcast. Here are some of our episodes related to advanced practice areas:
Another great way to learn about specialization is to explore the certifications available to OTs, which is usually denoted by additional letters following their OT credential.
To learn more about our many optional certifications, check out our posts:
What is an average OT salary?
According to our custom calculation, OTs earn $76,448 on average. This number is influenced by where you live, the clinical setting in which you work, how many years you have practiced, the types of patients you work with, and whether you have pursued a specialty.
We cover OT salary extensively in the Occupational Therapy Salary Guide.
Salary By Years of Experience
What’s the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy?
What is the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy? This is a great question.
Occupational therapists (OTs) and physical therapists (PTs) are quite similar in some ways, as both are rehabilitation professionals who strive to help patients return to their prior levels of function.
The key difference is that OT focuses more on the improvement of daily activities while PT focuses more on the specific improvement of body movement(s).
You can think of a PT as a human body mechanic, and an OT as a guide to the reintegration into normal life.
Is OT supported by research?
The short answer is “yes.” Research does back the efficacy of occupational therapy.
The longer answer: Right now, about 1,000 research articles come out per year containing occupational therapy. So, there is much for your therapist to draw on.
Each person is unique in their health and the challenges they face, so we always do our best to balance the science with close attention to each individual patient and their own individual needs. We call this evidence-based practice.
One of the easiest ways to find out about the evidence supporting the occupational therapy resources you are receiving is to ask your occupational therapist. I also have an article called “The 100 Most Influential OT Research Articles,” which covers the most cited medical research articles that reference OT interventions.
See our full list of OT journals here.
How to become an occupational therapy professional
In the United States, you can either practice OT as an occupational therapist or an occupational therapy assistant.
The main difference between the two is that OTs perform initial evaluations and create treatment plans, in addition to delivering your treatments. OTAs solely deliver treatments based on the OT’s treatment plans.
How to become an occupational therapist
To become an occupational therapist, you’ll need to go through high school and college, then get a graduate degree in occupational therapy, either a Master’s or a Doctorate.
Once you get through OT school, you’ll need to pass the NBCOT exam (our national certification exam) and then become licensed in your state. Most states also require that you complete a certain amount of continuing education each year to keep your license active.
You can read more about the differences in OT degrees here.
How to become and occupational therapy assistant
OTAs earn associate’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees from certified programs. From there, they must also pass the national exam from NBCOT before practicing, before getting licensed in their particular state. Read here for a complete overview of their scope of practice.
Some OT departments also employ occupational therapy aides. These are non-licensed professionals who do not deliver OT treatments, but do help with the daily operations of the department.
How to find an OT near you?
The next natural step after learning about OT is to check out the occupational therapy professionals in your area.
You can search the map directly below. Or head to our OT Near Me directory for even more guidance on learning about occupational therapy in your area.
I hope this has flung the door wide open to the wonderful world of occupational therapy!
We are a unique profession filled with compassionate, dedicated individuals who devote their careers to helping you stay as engaged as possible in the activities that mean the most to you.