Physical Therapy vs. Occupational Therapy: What's the Difference

Updated: Oct 3, 2019

difference between ot and pt

It happens all the time! People are told to see an occupational therapist and they come to physical therapy and visa versa. Although there are many similarities between the two including their rehabilitative nature, there are some major differences.

Whether you are a patient looking for the right person to see, or you are considering a career in either OT or PT, it is important to understand their differences.

What is Occupational Therapy (OT)

Commonly, there is confusion regarding the difference between a physical therapist and occupational therapist. According to Ithaca College, “Occupational therapy is an allied health profession critical to helping people achieve function, meaning, and satisfaction in all aspects of their lives.” In other words, occupational therapy/therapists help patients of all ages be able to participate in the things they need to do to function in everyday life, as well as the things they want to do.

Some common examples include: helping a child with a disability to participate in school situations or helping a patient who suffered from an accident learn to use their electric wheelchair.

Similar to physical therapists, occupational therapists use a holistic approach to aide their patients in the healing process. However, an occupational therapist may come to the client’s home or school to evaluate their surroundings. They can recommend equipment needed for their client to function in that environment or give guidance to that client’s caregivers.

Licensing & Certification for OT


After completing school from a ACOTE-accredited OT program, occupational therapists must pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapist. If they pass the exam, the therapist can use the designation of OTR, or Occupational Therapist.

Each state has different requirements and procedures for therapists to obtain their OT license. To check what is required for you per your state, visit The American Occupational Therapist Association, Inc. Website. It is a requirement in all states to become licensed and, in order to obtain your license, hold a degree from an accredited program. Additionally, you must complete your fieldwork requirements, pass the NBCOT certification exam, and apply for a license (which includes a fee).

What are the different Occupational Therapy career options?

There are two possible Occupational Therapy career options; COTA – Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant or OTR – Occupational Therapist Registered. An Occupational Therapist typically goes through 4 years of graduate school where they receive their Master’s degree. In comparison, a COTA goes through a 2-year Associate’s degree. Similar to a PT and PTA relationship, the COTA is not able to do the initial evaluation and must practice under a licensed OT.

What are the different Occupational Therapy designations?

After you become an Occupational Therapist, you can further your education by obtaining specialty certifications. OTPotential has a large list of specialties you can become certified in including: Assistive Technology Professional (ATP), Certified Autism Specialist (CAS), Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE), and Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CRDS).

The AOTA has several of it’s own specialty certifications that are peer-review based. According to the AOTA website, applicants must submit a portfolio that includes specific criteria, a self-assessment, and a development of a professional development plan. If granted a credential, the OT or OTA is eligible to use the credential for 5 years. After 5 years, they must submit a renewal application.

OT’s can become specialty certified by the AOTA board in: Gerontology, Mental Health, Pediatrics, and Physical Rehabilitation. Both OT’s and OTA’s can become specialty certified by the AOTA Board in: Driving and Community Mobility, Environmental Modification, Feeding Eating, and Swallowing, Low Vision, or School Systems.

How do PT and OT differ?

It is easy to confuse PT and OT, however there are some drastic differences in the two practices. While both practices work in rehabilitation, OT deals more with performing specific, everyday tasks while PT works on performing movement of the body.

Schooling for Physical Therapy

Doctors of Physical Therapy: 3-4 Years, Doctorate Degree

Physical Therapy Assistant: 2 Year, Associate’s Degree

Schooling for Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapist Registered: 4 Year, Master’s Degree

Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant: 2 Year, Associate’s Degree

Licensing for Physical Therapy

Doctor of Physical Therapy: Complete schooling at a CAPTE accredited program, complete fieldwork requirements, pass the NPTE exam, apply for license

Licensing for Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapist Registered: Complete schooling at ACOTE accredited program, complete fieldwork requirements, pass NBCOT exam, apply for license

Overseeing Entity for Physical Therapy

American Physical Therapy Association

Overseeing Entity for Occupational Therapy

The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.

Both Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists play an important role in helping people return to the things they love most. If you are unsure as to who you should see, talk to your physician. Chances are, at some point, you may see both an OT and PT in your recovery journey.

If you are looking to get started in physical therapy, we are here to help! Feel free to contact us so we can get you started and back to your active-self!


Ithaca College, "Department of Occupational Therapy,"

The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc., "State OT Statutes and Regulations,"

OTPotential, "Your Guide to OT Certifications and Specialties," by Sarah Lyon, OTR/L,

The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc., "Board and Specialty Certifications,"

#occupationaltherapy #physicaltherapy #OT #PT

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