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Occupational therapy vs. physical therapy

physical therapist applies tape to client lower back
kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

Occupational and physical therapies are two types of rehabilitation treatments for patients with a variety of conditions but are frequently confused with each other. The name ‘occupational therapy’ can lead to more confusion—but in this context, ‘occupation’ refers to a task that someone completes rather than their profession.

In This Article

Both therapies aim to restore patient mobility to improve their quality of life, and both often use manual, hands-on techniques to achieve their goals. They may also be used in tandem for patients that could benefit from the combined expertise of both specialties. However, these two therapies focus on treating very different aspects of our physical and mental health.

Differentiating between the two


A professional OT’s take on occupational therapy vs physical therapy

Keri DeGroot, an occupational therapist and assistant teaching professor with the University of Washington’s Division of Occupational Therapy, worked alongside physical therapists throughout her career. She defines occupational therapy through the Person-Environment-Occupation model and uses it to distinguish occupational from physical therapy.

“There’s a framework out there called the Person-Environment-Occupation [PEO] framework and I think that’s the best way to describe it and why we’re a little bit different than physical therapy.

You have the Person that encompasses strength and balance and thinking ability and everything [about a person]. And then the Environment, what’s going on around that person. And then the Occupation, the actual task or goal of what they’re trying to do,” she said.


What is physical therapy?

At its core, physical therapy helps people improve their physical mobility. This may be necessary for people recovering from an injury or surgery, managing a disability, or for people who want to take preventative measures against future injuries. In general, physical therapy usually focuses on our gross motor skills—using our torso, arms and legs for “whole body” functions like walking, running, jumping, and more. 

Physical therapy mostly focuses on the ‘Person’ spoke of the PEO framework.

“Physical therapy does some environment and some occupation, but really their main focus is going to be those person factors. How can we rehab the injury? How can we get better balance? How can we change what we’re doing at the person level, and maybe a little bit with the environment by adding a cane or a walker,” DeGroot said.

How PTs help patients

A physical therapist (PT) is the lead physician that meets with patients to assess their physical state and create a treatment plan. Their job is to help patients set realistic goals, track progress, and amend the treatment plan if needed. Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) often help them execute their treatment plans with the patients.

Required education

Physical therapists must complete a lengthy and rigorous education to be qualified for their profession. They need to complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). However, there are also other types of degrees for PTs for those who may have a bachelor’s degree in another area or who is a PTA that wants to transition to become a physical therapist. After earning their DPT, physical therapists must then pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) in order to apply for licensure in their state, in addition to any state-specific requirements.


What is occupational therapy?

“I like to define occupational therapy as a partner or coach that helps you do what you need and want to be able to do,” DeGroot said. 

Occupational therapy aims to help patients improve mobility and function to make it easier to execute the daily tasks of living, such as feeding, dressing or cleaning oneself, writing, using a mobility device, and much more. These kinds of activities generally focus on one’s fine motor skills—the use of the muscles in our hands, eyes, and other small muscle groups—as opposed to our gross motor skills.

“Occupational therapy basically just says, ‘What do you need and want to be able to do?’ Let’s evaluate what’s in the way of that and let’s intervene where we need to intervene.” DeGroot said that as an occupational therapist, she may be able to help someone without even addressing the Person aspect of the PEO framework but could still change the task (Occupation) or the environment to make it possible for the patient to participate in what they want to do.

How OTs help patients

Like a physical therapist, an occupational therapist (OT) assesses a patient’s needs and goals and then creates a treatment plan to achieve those goals. They are often assisted by occupational therapist assistants (OTAs) that help to execute the treatment plan.

Occupational therapists not only help improve a patient’s physical skills. If needed, they help manage a patient’s social-emotional skills and/or developmental conditions that affect a person’s ability to perform daily activities. Examples of conditions that occupational therapists can help with include:

  • Recovery from traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries
  • Birth injuries or defects
  • Rehabilitation following a stroke or heart attack
  • Neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis
  • Dementia
  • Autism
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Mood disorders
  • Drug addictions
  • Other mental or behavioral health issues

All of these conditions can impact a person’s ability to simply go about their day or take care of themselves. Occupational therapists help patients live as actively and independently as possible. This often involves modifying a patient’s environment at home or work to make caring for oneself easier.

“And that’s why you’ll see us in settings like mental health. A lot of OTs work in that setting because it’s like, how are you going to manage stress? If you are experiencing houselessness, how are you going to manage bill paying? Or if you do have a house, how are you going to manage the skills of cleaning or making sure you aren’t evicted? All of those sorts of life skills have a broader application,” DeGroot said.

Required education

OTs also undertake extensive education, but it’s a bit different from a PT’s educational path. OTs must graduate from a program accredited by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), which accredits both doctoral and master’s programs.

“There are two ways to get into occupational therapy right now: an entry-level master’s or an entry-level doctorate,” DeGroot said. “The doctorate is about a year longer and has a little bit more specialization involved.”

They must pass a national examination called the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) Certification Examination. This is usually all one needs to apply for an occupational therapist license, but some states have additional requirements.


Do physical and occupational therapists work together?

Although their scope of practice varies, you find OTs and PTs working together in just about any medical setting. 

“From the initial hospitalization, inpatient rehab, skilled nursing facilities, outpatient rehab or retirement centers—all of those environments you’re going to see PTs and OTs working really closely together,” DeGroot said.

Some patients benefit from the help of both a physical and occupational therapist, such as people experiencing injuries or afflictions of the brain. PTs and OTs can collaborate to create treatment plans addressing their individual goals. For example, a patient recovering from a stroke may need a physical therapist’s help to relearn how to walk or climb stairs. An occupational therapist may help that same patient with relearning how to feed themselves, get dressed, and do other self-care tasks.


If you’re thinking about becoming an occupational or physical therapist, you may not be sure which one is right for you. Each profession can yield rewarding careers that are founded on helping others, but, according to DeGroot, they both tend to attract people with similar interests.

“The people that gravitate more towards physiology, biology, and kinesiology and really love working with the body, then I would think about a career in physical therapy,” she said.

Although there are some occupational therapists that focus on the body more than others, occupational therapy tends to attract a combination of majors into their programs.

“We have some that are biology focused—and there are some fabulous OTs working just with the body—but we also have some that come from a psych background and want to work in mental health,” DeGroot said. “I see that broader context for OTs, and if that’s something that excites people—that opening of some of these other areas of interest, maybe if you’re someone that’s restless and wants to try a ton of things, ‘yes I think the body’s fascinating but that’s not all I want to do’—then maybe OT would be a better fit.”


Salary and career outlook for OTs and PTs

Physical and occupational therapist salaries are comparable, though the median annual salary for PTs is approximately $10,000 more than the median annual salary for OTs.

Physical Therapists

National data

Median Salary: $95,620

Projected job growth: 16.9%

10th Percentile: $61,930

25th Percentile: $77,750

75th Percentile: $101,920

90th Percentile: $127,110

Projected job growth: 16.9%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alaska $99,810 $38,960 $128,450
Alabama $95,450 $59,810 $130,000
Arkansas $93,560 $59,640 $126,600
Arizona $95,590 $72,500 $127,740
California $101,180 $50,230 $135,570
Colorado $93,100 $60,960 $125,670
Connecticut $100,070 $76,660 $129,210
District of Columbia $95,870 $75,710 $127,370
Delaware $97,630 $75,710 $129,450
Florida $95,450 $61,750 $120,750
Georgia $95,590 $71,410 $124,450
Hawaii $95,110 $37,190 $127,160
Iowa $78,930 $60,750 $103,170
Idaho $80,340 $61,990 $102,060
Illinois $97,690 $65,380 $122,370
Indiana $95,390 $62,830 $120,500
Kansas $88,570 $61,080 $120,650
Kentucky $81,850 $59,840 $116,790
Louisiana $95,590 $63,630 $129,270
Massachusetts $96,410 $61,200 $123,620
Maryland $94,960 $62,760 $120,260
Maine $79,170 $61,990 $102,060
Michigan $79,870 $56,680 $102,060
Minnesota $80,130 $72,880 $101,510
Missouri $79,050 $59,830 $108,340
Mississippi $95,770 $73,870 $129,270
Montana $78,950 $61,210 $102,060
North Carolina $79,240 $60,900 $106,980
North Dakota $78,270 $61,350 $100,620
Nebraska $80,990 $61,740 $120,500
New Hampshire $83,700 $61,740 $102,370
New Jersey $99,730 $76,980 $128,330
New Mexico $95,590 $75,220 $130,430
Nevada $99,360 $60,800 $152,420
New York $95,620 $62,270 $121,140
Ohio $95,620 $66,460 $124,380
Oklahoma $79,220 $60,720 $126,210
Oregon $95,040 $73,600 $120,750
Pennsylvania $95,890 $68,430 $121,230
Rhode Island $95,930 $61,990 $121,140
South Carolina $79,830 $49,870 $104,390
South Dakota $78,040 $61,570 $100,920
Tennessee $95,370 $61,990 $106,040
Texas $99,040 $62,240 $136,870
Utah $81,190 $55,660 $127,740
Virginia $94,260 $62,000 $121,780
Vermont $78,320 $61,250 $102,060
Washington $99,330 $76,090 $126,940
Wisconsin $95,480 $61,790 $120,260
West Virginia $96,970 $68,930 $121,200
Wyoming $79,630 $75,320 $126,780

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Your particular salary as a PT or OT depends on numerous additional factors such as location, experience, education level, type of employer, and more.

Occupational Therapists

National data

Median Salary: $85,570

Projected job growth: 13.9%

10th Percentile: $60,680

25th Percentile: $75,710

75th Percentile: $100,490

90th Percentile: $123,840

Projected job growth: 13.9%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alaska $99,340 $61,790 $121,060
Alabama $83,370 $49,600 $119,770
Arkansas $77,630 $47,200 $121,450
Arizona $80,690 $60,500 $127,110
California $100,510 $77,860 $130,790
Colorado $95,620 $72,930 $124,440
Connecticut $95,950 $72,340 $126,610
District of Columbia $78,430 $62,260 $127,410
Delaware $89,840 $59,660 $125,940
Florida $81,780 $61,000 $102,280
Georgia $79,240 $60,890 $115,060
Hawaii $93,980 $73,060 $127,110
Iowa $78,050 $60,460 $103,250
Idaho $78,180 $61,790 $100,640
Illinois $80,780 $48,710 $102,390
Indiana $78,670 $59,750 $121,060
Kansas $83,760 $59,330 $118,820
Kentucky $78,510 $59,440 $101,720
Louisiana $95,590 $61,340 $123,280
Massachusetts $95,870 $60,060 $121,090
Maryland $80,800 $58,990 $126,290
Maine $76,730 $60,010 $95,870
Michigan $77,750 $51,360 $100,510
Minnesota $77,910 $60,900 $99,620
Missouri $78,440 $48,590 $100,200
Mississippi $82,200 $60,640 $103,140
Montana $78,930 $61,030 $100,220
North Carolina $78,870 $60,060 $102,690
North Dakota $75,770 $59,770 $90,400
Nebraska $78,420 $60,680 $102,310
New Hampshire $79,100 $60,500 $100,590
New Jersey $99,340 $73,760 $129,670
New Mexico $89,110 $60,530 $160,690
Nevada $99,540 $77,160 $134,660
New York $92,420 $60,730 $127,350
Ohio $80,010 $59,810 $119,010
Oklahoma $90,330 $60,130 $126,780
Oregon $96,130 $75,490 $115,010
Pennsylvania $85,920 $60,900 $121,150
Rhode Island $95,870 $62,700 $124,370
South Carolina $94,980 $60,500 $118,300
South Dakota $75,570 $60,680 $99,040
Tennessee $92,320 $60,740 $104,760
Texas $95,590 $62,380 $128,160
Utah $81,630 $61,030 $126,570
Virginia $96,480 $62,750 $127,750
Vermont $77,750 $60,910 $99,230
Washington $97,120 $75,460 $118,300
Wisconsin $77,570 $58,410 $99,420
West Virginia $79,170 $47,450 $118,820
Wyoming $77,630 $48,400 $126,800

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the employment of physical and occupational therapists will grow 17% and 14% respectively through 2031, much faster than the average across all occupations. This may be to account for aging generations that are living longer and living more active lives, thus needing the services of both kinds of therapists more.


keri degroot

With professional insight from:

Keri DeGroot, Occupational Therapist & Assistant Teaching Professor

University of Washington Division of Occupational Therapy