What’s the difference between physiotherapy and occupational therapy?

Should you see a Physiotherapist or an Occupational Therapist? Can you have sessions with both?


People often get confused about the differences between the various Allied Health rehabilitation disciplines, which can pose a problem when deciding what to do next in your rehabilitation journey. In this Better Rehab guide, let’s look at the differences—and the similarities—between Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy, and the benefits each can offer to you.

Occupational Therapy vs Physiotherapy

Let’s start with some definitions. As we’ve written in our previous guide, occupational therapy is a form of evidence-based support to help people living with illness or disability achieve their goals in their daily life. These goals can be as simple as being able to shower and dress independently, or as complex as being able to move around the community or return to work. Clinicians who are trained in this field are called Occupational Therapists, or OTs.

The word “occupation” in Occupational Therapy is also a source of confusion, with many people thinking it means “job or profession”. In this case it simply refers to things that “occupy” an individual—that is, the tasks or activities that a person performs daily to live and to create a meaningful life. In fact, there is a type of Occupational Therapy that is designed specifically for children—even though they don’t necessarily have a job or profession!

Meanwhile, Physiotherapy or physical therapy focuses on the human anatomy and provides hands-on and evidence-based physical techniques to people who are experiencing pain, stiffness or limited movement. Limited mobility may follow an injury, or may be caused by an illness that happened suddenly or which has posed a challenge to your mobility most of your life. Those who are trained in this field are called Physiotherapists, or PTs.

What are the differences and similarities between an Occupational Therapist and Physiotherapist?

From the brief definitions, you can already see the key difference and similarity between the two fields.

The key difference is their focus: an Occupational Therapist focuses on all areas of your life to help you enhance your ability to independently take part in daily living, while a Physiotherapist focuses on the impairment itself to help you regain your ability to move comfortably and without pain.

The key similarity is their goal: both share the goal of helping you improve your quality of life. They just tackle it in different ways, but they can work together—you can’t independently take part in daily life if you feel pain every time you move.

Each serves a unique role in rehabilitation, and some people may find benefits in undergoing both therapies.

Should you see a Physiotherapist or an Occupational Therapist?

Let’s consider an example. One day, Nina takes a walk in the park, loses her balance and injures her knee. She is soon diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, which comes with a range of symptoms that affect her gait and balance.

Should Nina see a Physiotherapist or an Occupational Therapist?

A Physiotherapist can help her improve her knee’s range of motion by designing targeted exercises for her, massaging her knee, and manipulating her legs to show her how to stretch safely without causing further injury. Her Physiotherapist can also prescribe walking aids, such as a wheelchair or a walking frame, and show her how to use the walking aid properly.

Nina decides to continue to see a Physiotherapist and is happy with her ongoing sessions. Nina realises, however, that though her injured knee will soon stop hurting, the MS will remain—and that she does not have want to put her life on hold after her MS diagnosis. She wants to bathe on her own, buy her own groceries, meet with friends, take public transport or learn a new hobby. She also still has responsibilities she wants to continue fulfilling, such as walking her dog or helping her son with his homework.

So while she’s building her strength and reducing the pain in her knee with the Physiotherapist, Nina meets with an Occupational Therapist. The Occupational Therapist can assess her situation, listen to her goals and devise a plan to help her achieve what she finds important and meaningful in her daily life. They can train Nina on ways to safely move from the bathtub to her wheelchair, or suggest ways to modify her home such as installing a grab rail in her shower so she can move more easily. All of these changes in her life and home environment can leave Nina feeling stressed and frustrated, and her Occupational Therapist can help her with this as well by teaching her strategies to manage these feelings and focus on achieving her goals.

She can also continue to see her Physiotherapist to get expert advice regarding managing the mobility and balance challenges brought by her diagnosis.

Physiotherapy versus Occupational Therapy – Still unsure?

We hope this has been a useful starting point to guide you in making decisions about your or your loved ones’ rehabilitation. If you’re still unsure about which therapy is right for you, you can contact us to chat further here.