What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy
An occupational therapist helps a patient learn how to use a walker.
Credit: Tyler Olson | Shutterstock

Occupational therapy is often mistaken for something having to do with career counseling. In fact, occupational therapists aren't worried about jobs; they're focused on the activities that give daily life meaning.

Occupational therapy helps patients recover or develop skills needed for the activities of daily living, including self-care, leisure, independent living and work. Therapists work in hospitals, in schools, in nursing homes and with patients in their own homes.

Patients who benefit from occupational therapy, or OT, include people who have had strokes, people with autism and other developmental disorders and people recovering from certain surgeries, including hip replacements.

History and goals

Modern occupational therapy has its roots in the late 1800s, when arts and crafts therapists began to work in hospitals, using hands-on activities to engage patients with both mental and physical illnesses. In 1917, these professionals came together as the American Occupational Therapy Association, which remains the national professional organization for occupational therapists.

Unlike physical therapy, which focuses on the body's strength and ability to move, occupational therapy is concerned with overall function. Occupation, or meaningful activity, is recognized as important to people's well-being.

Thus, a patient recovering from hip surgery will likely see both a physical and an occupational therapist, who frequently work closely together. The physical therapist would focus on improving the patient's strength and range of motion, while the occupational therapist would teach the patient to navigate their environment with a walker, how to get in and out of bed safely and how to get dressed without assistance. They might also evaluate the patient's home for possible dangers, such as rugs that pose a tripping hazard.

Occupational therapists use and develop adaptive technologies for people who need them. A hip replacement patient cannot bend from the waist while they heal, so an occupational therapist might give him or her a sock aid, a device that looks like a tube attached to two long cords. With this adaptive device, the person can slip their sock on without bending over.

What does an occupational therapist do?

Occupational therapists work in a variety of settings. About half are employed by hospitals or in offices dedicated to occupational therapy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of the rest work in nursing homes, in schools, and for home-health services.

In hospitals, OTs help patients with activities of daily living — such as dressing, bathing and brushing their teeth — that they will need to do successfully to go home. They also help patients in long-term care, such as nursing homes or rehabilitation facilities. An occupational therapist in a nursing home might have a patient practice shooting hoops with a toy basketball and net in order to work on balance and eye-hand coordination, with the goal of improving mobility and reducing falls.

Occupational therapists work with people who have experienced traumatic brain injuries in both short-term and long-term rehabilitation hospitals. They might develop activities that help stroke victims learn to use their limbs again, or they might help military veterans hurt by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) regain their cognitive facilities. The might take a brain-injured person to the grocery store to help them relearn how to shop, or to a crowded mall to help them find strategies to cope with overwhelming situations.

Pediatric occupational therapists work with children in inpatient and outpatient facilities and in schools. Many pediatric OTs specialize in sensory integration therapy, with the goal of helping children with autism and other disorders take in and process information from multiple senses. School-based therapists might also help children who struggle with fine-motor activities such as handwriting or using scissors. 

Occupational therapy is a career with good growth potential. Employment of OTs is expected to rise 29 percent by 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Stephanie Pappas

Stephanie interned as a science writer at Stanford University Medical School, and also interned at ScienceNow magazine and The Santa Cruz Sentinel. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what her latest project is, you can follow Stephanie on .
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