Reference: Differences Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy: The Hippotherapy Perspective -- Bethany A. Lee, MS, OTR/L

One of the most commonly asked questions in the rehabilitation community is ‘what is the difference between physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT)?’

A broad answer to this question is that the focus of rehabilitation through physical therapy is improvement in function of the physical body whereas the focus of rehabilitation through occupational therapy is functional independence within an individual’s environment and with respect for their unique life roles.

As Hippotherapy is a treatment strategy that may be utilized by physical or occupational therapists (and speech-language pathologists, although NCEFT does not provide speech therapy at this time), the distinction may become even less noticeable in the arena than in the traditional rehabilitation clinic. In a traditional, outpatient clinic, one would probably see physical therapists, occupied with gait training and strengthening exercises with patients. Occupational therapists in this setting, help patients rehabilitate through the use of functional activities and adaptive techniques.

In the Hippotherapy environment, one will see treatments sessions which, whether conducted by a PT or OT, look much the same. If we view the human body as a ‘living building’, then, as with all buildings, a stable foundation, or core must be developed in order that the more distal aspects of the structure are secure. Therapists will utilize the movement of the horse as their treatment strategy to improve core strength and balance, thereby providing the base from which functional movement may be developed. Gross motor coordination will be addressed before fine motor coordination, trunk strength will be addressed before extremity strength and global sensory issues will be addressed before the more subtle.

The nuances of the Hippotherapy treatment strategy whether used by a PT or OT manifest as a result of scope of profession and practice domain issues. Many times, this is most evident in semantics or the specific language utilized to write functional goals and/or in the activities utilized to reach these goals.

The bottom line is that all therapy services provided by NCEFT are a team effort. The therapists on our staff bring a wealth of experience and proficiency to each therapy session. Whether being treated by a physical or occupational therapist at our center, expect that our team of skilled practitioners work together to provide the most comprehensive treatment plan possible for each patient through regularly scheduled case conferences, multidisciplinary consults and idea sharing exercises.

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Reviewed by: Kimberly S. Pierson

Are Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy the Same?

Although both types of therapy help children improve the quality of their lives, there are differences. Physical therapy deals with the issues of pain, strength, joint range of motion, endurance, and gross motor functioning, whereas occupational therapy deals more with fine motor skills, visual-perceptual skills, cognitive skills, and sensory-processing deficits.

Who Are Occupational Therapy Practitioners?

They can be credentialed at either the professional level (occupational therapist) after completion of a 4-year (bachelor's) degree program or at the technical level (occupational therapy assistant) after completion of a 2-year (associate's) degree program. In 2007, however, the American Occupational Therapy Association will require occupational therapists to get a master's degree in the field.

All occupational therapy practitioners must complete supervised fieldwork programs and pass a national certification examination. Most states also require a license to practice and require occupational therapy practitioners to take continuing education classes throughout their careers to maintain that licensure.

Occupational therapists work in a variety of settings, including:

  • hospitals
  • schools
  • rehabilitation centers
  • mental health facilities
  • private practices
  • children's clinics
  • homes