Occupational Therapist: Your Expert in Achieving Independent Daily Living
What is an occupational therapist?
An occupational therapist (OT) is a healthcare provider who specializes in helping people of all ages achieve independence in their daily activities or occupations. This includes dressing, cooking, eating, working, and participating in hobbies. An OT uses adaptive equipment and helps patients of all ages adjust their environment and organize tasks to support their abilities.
An OT typically:
Evaluates a patient's ability to perform activities and creates a customized treatment plan based on medical history, lifestyle, needs, and activity goals
Performs home, school, and job site assessments
Educates patients and teaches them the skills to participate in their activities
Recommends and provides training in the use of adaptive equipment, such as splints, bathing equipment, dressing devices, ergonomic tools and utensils, and specialized computer keyboards
Provides support and guidance to family members and caregivers
Collaborates with other healthcare providers, such as physical therapists, speech therapists, doctors, and social workers
An OT may also be known as a registered occupational therapist (OTR).
Who should see an occupational therapist?
Most people see an occupational therapist (OT) when their doctor refers them to one. Often, the purpose of the referral is for evaluation and treatment of diseases, injuries, disorders or conditions that affect or limit a person’s ability to function effectively in daily life.
People with a wide variety of conditions may benefit from occupational therapy, including stroke, arthritis, pain, fractures, repetitive stress injuries, work-related injuries, spinal cord injuries, mental health conditions, and developmental delays in children.
Occupational therapy can also be useful for people who want to stay healthy through proper ergonomic strategies, such as preventing carpal tunnel syndrome by altering the height of their chair, keyboard and monitor at their computer workstation and practicing proper technique for heavy lifting.
When should you see an occupational therapist?
Depending on your state’s laws, you may or may not need a doctor’s referral to see an occupational therapist (OT). You should also check with your insurance plan, Medicare plan, or other healthcare plan about any need for a referral before seeing an OT.
Consider seeing a qualified occupational therapist if you develop any of the following symptoms or conditions including:
Difficulty performing activities that require fine motor skills, such as putting on earrings or writing
Difficulty with hand-eye coordination
Difficulty using a wheelchair, walker, or other adaptive equipment
Difficulty completing self-care activities and home management tasks such as vacuuming
Difficulty driving due to aging or disability
Impaired senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching) or abnormal sensation in your hands, arms, feet or legs
Pain when performing certain tasks
You may also want to consider seeing an OT under the following situations:
You want to promote wellness through ergonomic strategies, which means making what you’re doing, such as walking or working at a desk, comfortable for your body and efficient.
You have diabetes and want to learn strategies to protect your body and your health.
You work with a keyboard or perform repetitive motions in your work and want to avoid injuries.
You are aging and want to learn strategies to keep yourself safe at home and while driving.
You or a family member has a disability or injury, or is recovering from surgery.
What conditions and diseases does an occupational therapist treat?
An occupational therapist treats conditions and diseases including:
Age-related conditions including low vision, aging in place (remaining in your own home as you age), cognitive (thinking and reasoning) difficulties, unsafe driving habits, and dementia
Cognitive and developmental disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, sensory processing (integration) disorder, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and developmental delays
Genetic and congenital conditions including birth defects, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and muscular dystrophy
Traumatic injuries including spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, severe burns, and limb amputations
What tests or assessments does an occupational therapist perform or order?
An occupational therapist can order or perform a wide variety of evaluations and assessments including:
Environment assessments including evaluating a patient’s home, school, work, or other environment for safety issues and barriers to independence
Fine motor skill evaluations including handwriting, keyboarding, hand and wrist strength, grasp strength and patterns, and finger manipulations
Gross motor skill evaluations including upper body strength, muscle tone, trunk stability, balance, and range-of-motion tests
Sensory processing assessments including pain sensitivity, frustration tolerance, emotional deficiency, speech, communication and language abilities, and social interaction evaluations
Visual assessments including visual tracking, reading ability, letter recognition, alignment ability, and hand-eye coordination
What procedures and treatments does an occupational therapist perform or order?
Occupational therapists can order or perform various procedures and treatments including:
Activities of daily living training including techniques for bathing, dressing, feeding oneself, cooking, household chores, driving, managing finances, and childcare
Assistive device training including the proper use of grab bars, canes, walkers, toilet seats, bath seats, reachers, grabbers, and custom splints
Body mechanics training including basic body alignment; proper lifting and carrying techniques; and exercises and activities to improve range of motion, strength, and gross and fine motor skills
Cognitive training including programs to improve communication, reasoning, problem-solving, memory, sequencing, and perceptual skills
Environment modifications including rearranging or replacing furniture; keeping frequently used items accessible; installing handrails and grab bars; removing area rugs; removing cabinet doors; installing sink pedals; installing stair chairs and lifts; and raising or lowering countertops, appliances and furniture
Low vision modifications including using indirect lighting; installing nightlights; reducing reflective surfaces; maximizing contrasts; using large print; and using textures and bright markings for stairs, edges, and appliance dials
Neuromuscular retraining including activities to improve hand-eye coordination, visual processing, and nerve function after an injury
Pain, inflammation, and joint treatments including ultrasound, electrical stimulation, hot and cold therapy, and paraffin wax therapy
Return-to-work programs including joint protection strategies; energy conservation skills; and ergonomic modifications to computer keyboards, desk chairs, and other workplace features
Sensory integration training including techniques to improve sensations, touch, balance, and spatial awareness
Occupational therapist training and certification
All states license occupational therapists (OTs) and regulate occupational therapy practice. However, licensing requirements vary somewhat from state to state. OT qualifications typically include:
Graduation with a master’s or doctoral degree in occupational therapy from an accredited program
Completion of supervised clinical experience
Passage of a certification exam that validates the therapist's specialized knowledge and skills in occupational therapy
To maintain licensure and certification, an OT must complete professional development and continuing education requirements.
Occupational therapists can pursue additional board certification and specialty certification through the American Occupational Therapy Association. Specialties include:
Driving and community mobility
Feeding, eating and swallowing