What Is Occupational Therapy Anyway?

Occupational Therapy is a relatively new field since World War I, or the early 1900’s. Many still don’t know what type of therapy service it is or provides. I am an occupational therapy practitioner, and I find that although more know what this field entails as time goes on, many are still at a loss to understand its function. Since it is rather a broad field, this also contributes to the general confusion and lack of clarity regarding the type of therapy it is.

In general Occupational Therapy addresses a patient or person’s function and Activities of Daily Living (ADL’s) and a healthy balance of this being achieved through appropriate work, play, rest and recreation. This can further be broken down into four main, wide-spectrum areas of the population that is serviced. Adults, Pediatrics, the elderly and Mental Health. There are almost endless sub-groups of therapy that each area addresses. Some pertain to and apply to all of the main areas and some are exclusive and specific to one area. For example, ADL’s are addressed in adults, children and the mental health areas, however the needs in each area varies and changes. A balance of work, play, rest and recreation applies to all, but again this is variable according to the area/population being served.

For example, adults’ needs in their ADL’s differ from a child’s.The obvious reason is that children are in the process of developing and adults (although still developing through stages of life) are different in their developmental needs. This is further complicated by the condition or conditions that are being treated. A premature baby with Cerebral Palsy is certainly given a different treatment plan than an adult with let’s say Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This brings us to the many specialties within the category of Occupational Therapy. Hand Therapy would be one area of which Carpal Tunnel Syndrome falls under. Occupational Therapists can specialize in a multitude of endless areas, much too many to go into detail here.

Before I proceed any further, I would like to give a brief history about the development of Occupational Therapy as a profession and its basic philosophy. Occupational Therapy’s goal is to help patient’s reach their maximum potential and function in life in the general areas mentioned above, simply put, the ADL’s. The very name ‘Occupational Therapy’ implies the act of occupying oneself. The theory and philosophy of Occupational Therapy is the process of restoring or reaching one’s functional ability through occupying acts. The basic premise of O.T. is that a balance of work, rest, play and recreation brings about, maintains and improves ADL’s and optimal quality of life.

Historically, Occupational Therapy’s theory/philosophy developed during World War I to help disabled veterans return to work, and it continues to develop. The word “disabled” in itself can imply many conditions, not excluding mental health illnesses, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was discovered by Occupational Therapists that one very critical aspect of recovery from any disability is through meaningful occupation. The term ‘occupation’ used in this sense means many things. Doing crafts is a form of ‘occupational’ therapy. Preparing a meal or getting dressed is another one. Most of us take these things for granted, but people with disabilities often need to re-learn to do these things that most of us do not give a second thought to.

Many confuse Occupational Therapy with Physical Therapy, and there is overlap – yet they are two very distinct and separate fields. An Occupational Therapist works on improving physical and cognitive function as it addresses ADL’s and a Physical Therapist focuses on the restoration of injured body function through physical exercises. Both forms of therapy are similar in many ways, but in the process they address different areas. Both PT and OT are very important fields and work together well and complement one another.