What is Occupational Therapy and How Can it Help Recovery?

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People who have experienced an accident, injury, surgery, or chronic condition often are referred to a physical therapist to aid in their recovery. If the condition affects a person’s ability to go about their normal day, occupational therapy (OT) also may be prescribed.

“A very common misconception is that we help people find jobs,” said Mary Claire Hart, assistant director of rehab services at Elderwood at Williamsville, “but an ‘occupation’ is really anything you do throughout your day.

“We help individuals regain the ability to complete those tasks, regardless of the cause of their deficit – be it surgery that temporarily alters their ability to be independent, or a new disability that requires a need to relearn skills or make adaptations,” she said.

Elderwood’s OT experts shed light on the benefits of therapy and how it’s used as a key component in subacute rehabilitation. 

What is the difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy?

While physical and occupational therapy frequently go hand-in-hand, the terms are not interchangeable. Physical therapy (PT) focuses on increasing the strength, mobility and range of motion of the muscles and joints surrounding an affected area, such as the shoulder or knee. Occupational therapy teaches mechanics and movements to reduce or avoid pain, strain or re-injury. Occupational therapy deals with the function of the entire body, as well as the physical environment.

“Occupational therapy helps people of all ages, birth to senior, gain the skills they need for their everyday life,” Jennifer Kozemko, OT, assistant director of outpatient rehab at Elderwood at Waverly.

Who needs OT?

There are many instances in which OT can help improve a person’s quality of life, such as following a stroke, brain injury, or the loss of use or amputation of a limb. People who suffer from debilitating conditions such as COPD, arthritis and even urinary incontinence also benefit from OT. For people with pain resulting from an injury or overuse, such as tennis elbow, OT can get them back in the game.

Elderwood therapy departments treat a range of conditions. Occupational therapists may help a patient with fine motor skills so they can continue to brush their own hair or teeth. Short-term subacute patients work toward independence with their daily living skills so they can take care of themselves when they go home.

“Occupational therapy is not just for people with a physical condition; residents with memory care issues also benefit from OT,” said Marcia Diagostino, an OT and director of rehab at Elderwood at Hamburg. “Our OT and PT staff work in concert to help identify and address issues that affect independence and work to integrate with the facility’s Memory Care programming.”

Outpatient vs. inpatient occupational therapy

Physical and occupational therapy sometimes can be accommodated privately at home but more frequently is offered through an outpatient therapy center. Therapy also can be provided in the hospital and at health care facilities where you stay briefly while receiving care.

Short-term residential rehab programs involve a multi-disciplinary team of physical, occupational and speech therapists, along with nurses, social workers and other caregivers to create an individualized therapy regimen. Each patient’s progress is carefully tracked and monitored to ensure therapy goals are achieved and function is improved or restored.

When deciding between outpatient or residential rehab, it’s best to consider your physician’s recommendation based on your condition. It’s also wise to check your insurance coverage. Many health insurance plans will cover a short-term residential rehab stay if your situation meets certain requirements.

Taking a personalized approach to occupational therapy

When there is a temporary or permanent barrier to a patient’s mobility, occupational therapists devise ways to remove or work around the obstacle. They might introduce adaptive utensils to help people feed themselves, or reachers and other devices to aid in dressing.

Diagostino said occupational therapists often must find creative solutions to help improve a person’s comfort or independence. For instance, different devices or cushions might help improve the positioning of someone who leans in their wheelchair. In addition, the OT may recommend a strengthening therapy regimen, so the person is better able to reposition themselves.

Sometimes, the environment, not the skills, limits a person’s independence. A person may not be able to dress themselves because they have difficulty reaching a dresser drawer. Rearranging the contents of the drawers or moving the dresser itself can improve accessibility and independence.

“There is no “one-size fits all” plan when it comes to occupational therapy,” Diagostino adds. “Developing a customized approach for each patient is important to help them regain dignity and quality of life.”