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Explainer: What Is Occupational Therapy?

OT can help patients get back to the daily tasks of living.

a gray haired older woman uses a tool to help open a jar

Disease, disability and injury can sometimes leave behind unexpected hurdles. Recovering patients might wonder what’s next and ask: How will I do the tasks of everyday life, like make a meal, climb the stairs or put on my socks?

The good news is occupational therapists can answer those questions and help you get back to living a fuller, more self-sufficient life.

“We work with people (so they can) continue to do – or develop – skills to do their daily tasks of living. We call those occupations, or things you do to occupy your time,” said Janet Poole, Division Chief/Program Director of the Graduate Occupational Therapy Program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

While physical therapy focuses on helping patients move their bodies better, occupational therapy aims to improve the person’s ability to perform the activities of daily living, according to the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences

Occupational therapists, who typically train in master’s degree programs, take the tasks of living and break them down into manageable steps for patients and their caregivers. They also provide strategies and assistive devices so people can overcome and compensate for limitations. For instance, someone with a back problem could learn to use a grabber tool to pick something up off the floor. Kitchen tools can help with tasks like opening a jar lid. A shower seat can make it easier to bathe. A person with limited mobility could use a walker or wheelchair to get around.

Occupational therapists are experts in tools and techniques for doing daily tasks independently. Even things like training someone to use a “sock-aid” can be meaningful. A sock-aid is just what it sounds like – a tool for putting on socks and pulling them up.

“I still have a hand-written note that someone wrote to me many years ago saying ‘thank you so much for the sock-aid. It made all the difference in the world,” Poole said.

An occupational therapist (OT) can help someone improve their fine motor skills – the small, but complex movements in your hands and wrists that involve a coordinated effort between the brain and muscles. They can also assist with complex conditions like brain injury, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, amputations, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and rare diseases like chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIPD), hemophilia and scleroderma.

With OT, almost nothing that a patient wants to do is out of reach, Poole said. You never say never because people are resilient. 

“I would ask if there’s anything you want to do that you’re having difficultly doing or if there is anything you stopped doing that you would love to do again,” she said. “I see patient transformation all the time.”

To learn more, watch this video from the American Occupational Therapy Association.