What Is Occupational Therapy?

November 12, 2023

Occupational therapy helps individuals of all ages in recovering and maintaining their ability to perform jobs and activities that are meaningful to them. Occupational therapists work with patients who have chronic health conditions and developmental disabilities, and they also help individuals recovering from surgery and life-changing injuries. The goal of occupational therapy is to provide the patient with the modifications and tools they need to live as independently as possible. For example, a typical occupational therapy session for someone recovering from shoulder surgery might include instructions on how to use adaptive devices to reach items up on a high shelf. Sessions also generally include instruction in modifications the patient might use to dress themselves with minimal movement, and patients might also be taught about proper precautions for cooking while recovering from an injury or illness. Patients in rehabilitation centers normally receive occupational therapy on-site, and individuals who live at home can receive sessions at healthcare facilities and sometimes in their own homes.

The guide below provides information about why occupational therapy might be recommended, the benefits of the treatment, and how it is used in conjunction with other therapies.

When It's Used

Occupational therapy is typically recommended whenever an individual has a chronic condition, disability, or injury that prevents them from participating fully in family life, social events, or daily activities such as writing, cooking, dressing, or personal care. Occupational therapy may be recommended by a patient's physician, and the patient might also choose to see an occupational therapist privately during recovery from surgery or while coping with a life-changing medical condition. This type of therapy can be used to help children with autism or other learning differences adapt and participate more easily in school activities, and it is also used for older adults who have cognitive issues. Working individuals may be provided with occupational therapy by their company after a workplace accident.

Get familiar with the full benefits of occupational therapy next.

Benefits Of Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy can improve a patient's independence, which could increase their confidence and self-esteem. Patients who participate in occupational therapy can gain a greater knowledge of their condition and understand practical steps they can take to keep themselves safe and active. For elderly patients, occupational therapy could promote 'aging in place,' allowing them to stay in their own homes for as long as possible without the need to move to an assisted care facility. Occupational therapists can help patients redesign their daily routines to encourage safe mobility and reduce the risk of falls. They often assist older patients with stretching exercises to reduce pain, and they also provide food recommendations for patients with swallowing difficulties. Occupational therapy teaches patients of all ages how they can adapt to the challenges of their particular health circumstances and continue to have a sense of purpose and meaning in life. In addition to benefiting the patient, occupational therapy assists the patient's family members through education and caregiver relief. Therapists educate the family on how to maintain their own lives while engaging in the caregiving process, and they enable the patient to make better decisions about their day-to-day care; this often reduces the amount of caregiving the patient needs.

Discover the fields of use for occupational therapy next.

Fields Of Use

Occupational therapy is used at all stages of life and across a wide range of medical specialties. Occupational therapists can choose to become certified in fields such as gerontology, pediatrics, mental health, physical rehabilitation, and driving and community mobility. Therapists who specialize in gerontology help patients recovering from strokes, and they also assist those who have recently had a hip replacement. Pediatric occupational therapists help children with autism in learning functional skills, and they assist kids with crawling, walking, and feeding. Specializations are also available in care for those with low vision and in environmental modification. Professionals who work in environmental modification provide recommendations on furniture placement, adaptive devices, and assistive technology that make the patient's home environment safer and more accessible. Those who specialize in caring for patients with low vision help enhance the patient's vision with optical devices and technology. Some occupational therapists may also choose to work in the school system; these therapists assist patients who are eligible for special education services in learning the skills they need to function in the school environment and in making modifications where necessary.

Read about occupational therapy's connection to other therapies next.

Connection To Other Therapies

The work occupational therapists do has a very strong connection to other therapies. For example, occupational therapists who specialize in gerontology often work closely with the patient's medical doctors, physical therapists, and speech therapists to coordinate optimal care. They can help the patient move safely and practice appropriate exercises given by the physical therapist. For patients with feeding difficulties, they will also work in conjunction with the patient's speech therapist to formulate a list of foods that are safe for the patient to eat and in methods that can improve the patient's ability to feed themselves. Occupational therapists who work with mental health patients and individuals with learning disabilities may speak to the patient's behavioral health team about the most appropriate modifications for the patient and the skills that need to be reinforced during occupational therapy sessions.

Get familiar with some potential fallbacks of occupational therapy next.

Potential Fallbacks

The success of occupational therapy depends on the patient's overall physical and mental health. Some patients may begin a series of occupational therapy sessions they are unable to finish due to health complications, and occupational therapy might not be effective for every patient. If the patient is not suitable for occupational therapy services, doctors might choose to have the patient continue with physical therapy or speech therapy for longer to build their strength and functional skills in these areas. The patient could then be re-evaluated to see if occupational therapy would be appropriate at a later time. Patients who do not have occupational therapy may need to have in-home health services and caregivers as a fallback, and they might not be able to be as independent as those who have had occupational therapy.

Learn about where occupational therapists work next.

Where Occupational Therapists Work

Occupational therapists work in a variety of settings depending on their training and specialization. Some occupational therapists may work only with adults, and others may specialize in working with children. Occupational therapists often work in nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and physician's offices, and they may also provide occupational therapy services in patient's homes. Recent statistics show twenty-seven percent of occupational therapists work in state, local, or private hospitals, and twenty-six percent of occupational therapists work in clinics with physical therapists, speech therapists, and audiologists. An estimated eighteen percent of occupational therapists work in skilled nursing facilities or home healthcare services, and roughly eleven percent of these professionals are employed in elementary or secondary schools. Occupational therapists can specialize in more than twenty areas. For example, some therapists may specialize in mental health, physical rehabilitation, or environmental modification. Other occupational therapists opt to specialize in helping those with low vision or with swallowing issues, and some choose to become certified hand therapists.

Uncover the history of occupational therapy next.

History Of Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy dates back to the late 1800s. At that time, arts and crafts were used as a way of engaging patients in hospitals. In the early 1900s, occupational therapy was typically used in mental health facilities, and it included routine activities such as cleaning, crafts, and farming. Eleanor Clark Slagle organized the world's first training program for occupational therapists, and she is regarded today as the 'mother of occupational therapy.' The American Occupational Therapy Association was formed in 1917, and occupational therapists helped provide care and rehabilitation for soldiers injured in World War I. Occupational therapists were originally known as reconstruction aides, and their work was concerned with rehabilitating the mind and the body so patients could perform tasks that were meaningful for them. Occupational therapists helped patients with cooking, dressing, hygiene, and activity modifications as needed. Today, they continue to provide personalized care for every patient, giving them tools and techniques to carry out activities at home and work.

Get familiar with the regulations occupational therapists must adhere to next.

Occupational Therapist Regulations

Occupational therapist regulations vary by state, and occupational therapists will need to be licensed in the state in which they wish to practice. To obtain a license, candidates must meet education requirements and pass a certification exam. Candidates will need to have graduated from an occupational therapy program accredited by the state in which they intend to practice. They must also have completed all fieldwork requirements; this usually involves the completion of six months of supervised occupational therapy experience. Once these requirements have been met, the candidate is required to pass a certification exam given by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. The examination is a four-hour written test, and scores of 450 or above are classified as passing. After passing the exam, occupational therapists will need to pay a fee and apply for a license in every state in which they intend to practice. In many states, temporary licenses or limited permits will be issued so occupational therapists can practice while they wait for the results of their certification exam. If candidates do not pass the certification exam the first time, they can retake it after thirty days.

Continue reading to learn about occupational therapy treatment approaches next.

Approaches Of Occupational Therapy Treatment

The treatment methods used in occupational therapy will vary depending on the patient's age, overall health, and goals. Occupational therapists help patients find practical ways to adapt activities so they can complete routine tasks and participate in the social, work, and leisure activities they value. Therapists often work with wheelchair users and individuals who have mobility difficulties, and they also assist patients who have medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Patients with mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and individuals with autism or learning differences could receive occupational therapy services as well. In treating patients, the occupational therapist will perform an assessment to identify the specific activities causing difficulty for the patient. The assessment usually involves talking with the patient and their family members about daily routines and goals, and the therapist will often visit the patient at home to get a better understanding of their living situation.

After the therapist has identified the areas in which the patient needs assistance, they will draw up a treatment plan. Treatment typically consists of teaching the patient a new way to complete a particular activity, and the therapist will suggest changes that can make the activity easier too. When working with a patient who has mobility difficulties after recent surgery, occupational therapists usually suggest that grab bars or shower benches be used in the bathroom to make bathing easier. For patients with arthritis and other conditions that could cause pain when grasping objects, occupational therapists may recommend the use of special equipment such as jar openers, electric can openers, and wide-handled appliances to minimize pain. Occupational therapy helps patients think creatively about how they carry out their daily activities. It provides special equipment and solutions to help them adapt their environment so they can perform activities safely and with less pain. Occupational therapists monitor patients closely, and the treatment plan evolves according to the patient's progress.

Reveal if there are alternatives to occupational therapy next.

Are There Alternatives?

Occupational therapy may be used together with other therapies, including physical therapy and speech therapy. If occupational therapy has been recommended by a doctor or another healthcare professional, the patient is strongly advised to receive the therapy so they can recover as effectively as possible. Patients may wish to ask their doctor about possible alternatives to this therapy before making a decision on treatment. If outpatient occupational therapy is difficult for the patient to attend, it may be possible to have the therapy at home. Long therapy sessions can be shortened if this helps the patient feel more comfortable. Patients and their families should communicate with the occupational therapist about any concerns they have so these can be addressed. Patients may also wish to ask their occupational therapist about exercises or activities they can do at home between treatment sessions.

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