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Occupational therapy

Occupational therapy is an essential part of health and social care, and plays a major role in helping people to cope with difficulties of daily living that may occur as a result of physical or mental health difficulties.

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What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) is a health profession, working with individual patients to help them improve their lives at home, at work, and anywhere else.

Occupational therapists work with anyone who is having difficulties with their daily activities, including people with mental health problems and those who are physically disabled. The help that can be provided by occupational therapy may include helping overcome challenges with learning at school or in the work environment, when playing sport or other activities, and with daily activities at home (eg, self care, cleaning, cooking).

Occupational therapy uses assistive technologies to support and assist people with disabilities, restricted mobility or any other impairment, to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible.

Occupational therapy is a health and social care profession that is regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council.

Occupational therapy vs physiotherapy

People often confuse occupational therapy and physical therapy because specialists in both areas work with similar groups of people and offer practical support. However, occupational therapy and physiotherapy are very different.

An occupational therapy program focuses on improving people’s ability to perform the tasks that they need to do in their everyday life. Physical therapy is different because it focuses on helping people improve movement and mobility.

Physiotherapists improve quality of life for people with specific movement problems by improving motor skills. They do this by providing hands on care, which may include ultrasound, advising on regular exercises and providing education about the problem.

Like occupational therapists, physiotherapists will create a personalised plan but the physiotherapy plan is more specifically directed towards movement and the function of the muscles, ligaments and tendons, rather than how you function with daily activities. Therefore, a physiotherapy plan may include:

  • Improving mobility, such as for those with stiff joints or muscles.

  • Managing pain and other chronic conditions, such as persistent back pain or recovery after an injury or surgery.

  • Preventing further injuries.

An occupational therapist will usually recommend specialist equipment or suggest different ways of doing things that might help a person perform their necessary tasks.

What does an occupational therapist do?

An occupational therapist helps people of all ages overcome challenges completing everyday tasks or activities.

Occupational therapists create a plan of goals and adjustments targeted at achieving a specific set of activities. The plan is for long term practical, realistic and individual help to overcome difficulties and promote improvements in quality of life and independence.

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Who does occupational therapy help?

Occupational therapy is a healthcare profession that focuses on enabling people to do the things they want and need to do in their everyday lives.

Occupational therapists work with anyone who is experiencing a long term condition, recovering from an operation or with any illness or disability who is having difficulty or unable to perform their daily activities.

The occupational therapist will work with the person to understand their abilities and goals, then develop a treatment plan based on that information. They may recommend methods and equipment that will help the person carry out these activities. Therefore occupational therapy helps people adapt their environment to meet their needs.

How to get occupational therapy

You can get occupational therapy free through the NHS or social services, depending on your situation. You can:

  • Speak to a GP about a referral.

  • Ask your local council whether and how you can get occupational therapy.

You can also pay for it yourself. A list of qualified and registered occupational therapists can be found on the Royal College of Occupational Therapists website (see 'Further Reading' below).

Further reading and references

  • Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)
  • Royal College of Occupational Therapists

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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