What is OT / Occupational Therapy?
By Sarah Lyon, OTR/L
February 23, 2023
OT stands for “occupational therapy.” In the simplest terms, occupational therapy (OT) helps you build healthy habits to change your overall health for the better.
Occupational therapists partner with you and your care team to help you understand how your diagnosis impacts your daily life, set goals, and guide you on your healing journey.
This article covers the many dimensions of our wonderful profession. 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 can you 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 can you find an OT near you?
What do occupational therapists do?
When you change your habits, you change your health.
This mantra is at the heart of occupational therapy. As occupational therapists, we help our clients do the hard work of changing how they do things on a daily basis—with the ultimate goal of improving their health.
In some cases, a life-changing event (like a stroke or a car accident) forces a client 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 with their new circumstances.
We also help clients with chronic conditions build habits to manage their condition—and, when possible, prevent the condition from progressing.
Ideally, we can start working with clients in the prevention phase—before a potentially limiting condition develops. This is why we urge folks to come see us as early in their health journey 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 over your health is still YOU.
In our complex healthcare system, you are your own best advocate. And, in many ways, you have the power to impact your own health in a positive way.
Occupational therapy is an important piece of the healthcare puzzle, because unlike other care options, OT empowers you—as the client—to improve your health by changing your own habits. Occupational therapists are skilled in looking at your health holistically—and helping you explore evidence-based approaches to meet your goals. But ultimately, you are the one who must take ownership of following through on your treatment plan.
What are some examples of OT?
Here are two examples examples of occupational therapy—one with a child and one with an adult.
- Say your child is born with cerebral palsy and has one arm that does not work as well as the other. Often, the child’s instinct is to use that arm less—which means they are limited in how they do things.
An occupational therapist would help the child build habits to safely use that arm more—so they could do more things and avoid complications from non-use.
- Say you have a stroke or injure your spinal cord. Suddenly, you have to re-learn how to get ready for the day (among many other things). Occupational therapists have learned from decades of experience and research the safest and most efficient way to help you do this.
When you work with an OT, you’ll have the best knowledge science has to offer—and you can thus avoid learning habits that may lead to more injuries and health problems.
To see how occupational therapy helps clients play an active role in managing their own health, watch our explanation of OT video!
What areas can OT help with?
Our goal as OTs is to make a tangible, long-term difference in your daily life. We do this by helping you participate in the day-to-day activities that you find essential or meaningful.
To that end, we’ll look closely 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 of daily living (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, particularly when doing so is made difficult by a health condition.
Pediatric occupational therapists 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 we can provide the most up-to-date care possible.
What can you expect when you visit an occupational therapist?
An occupational therapist’s work varies across settings, but no matter the setting in which you see an OT, 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 ask you questions about your goals.
Occupational therapists have access to an incredible number of standardized OT assessments, many of which are targeted to specific diagnoses. Your OT will complete any assessments relevant to your condition and treatment goals during your evaluation. (The OT may re-administer these assessments throughout your treatment in order to measure your progress.)
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 you achieve those goals.
Occupational therapy treatment
Subsequent treatment sessions focus on some combination of providing physical, emotional, and/or cognitive interventions to help you progress toward your goals.
Therapists also consider whether modification of their clients’ daily environment (and/or certain activities) may help set them up for success.
There is so much to discuss when it comes to treatment, but check out these three posts to start:
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 treatment is to empower you and your caregivers to manage your health condition—and you should leave OT with a self-management plan.
Where do OTs work?
There are about 130,000 occupational therapist jobs and approximately 50,000 occupational therapy assistant and aid jobs in the United States
You can visualize the many places where OTs work by reviewing the treatment setting 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 tuning into 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 are usually denoted by additional letters following a therapist’s OT credential.
To learn more about the many optional certifications available to OTs, check out these posts:
What is an average OT salary?
According to our custom calculation, OTs earn $78,964 per year 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.
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 or achieve their greatest possible level of function.
The key difference is that OT focuses more on improving a client’s ability to perform daily activities, while PT focuses more on the improvement of specific body movement(s).
You can think of a PT as a human body mechanic, and an OT as a guide for reintegration into normal life.
Is OT supported by research?
The short answer is “yes.” Research backs the efficacy of occupational therapy.
The longer answer: Right now, about 1,000 research articles related to occupational therapy come out every year. So, there is a lot of scientific evidence for your therapist to draw on when designing your plan of care.
Each person is unique in their health status and the challenges they face, so we always do our best to balance the science with each individual patient’s unique situation and needs. We call this evidence-based practice.
One of the easiest ways to find out about the evidence supporting the occupational therapy treatment you are receiving is to ask your occupational therapist. I also have an article titled, “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 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 those 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 first need to complete high school and college—and then go on to earn 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 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 an 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 or getting licensed in their particular state. Read here for a complete overview of the OTA 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 can you find an OT near you?
As a potential client, your next natural step after learning about OT is to check out the occupational therapy professionals in your area.
You can search directly below or head to our OT Directory for even more guidance on finding an occupational therapy professional in your area.
I hope this has flung the door to the wonderful world of occupational therapy wide open!
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.