Occupational Therapist: Your Expert in Achieving Independent Daily Living

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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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

  • Cancer and cancer treatment including managing pain, weakness, fatigue, surgical recovery, and treatment side effects such as nerve damage

  • 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

  • Mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, mood disorders, and substance abuse

  • Musculoskeletal disorders including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, joint replacements, sprains, strains, and broken bones

  • Neurologic disorders including stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease)

  • Occupational and overuse injuries including carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, plantar fasciitis, and tendinitis

  • Pain disorders including fibromyalgia, headaches, migraines, and neck and back pain

  • 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:

  • Gerontology

  • Mental health

  • Pediatrics

  • Physical rehabilitation

  • Driving and community mobility

  • Environmental modification

  • Feeding, eating and swallowing

  • Low vision

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 6
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. About Occupational Therapy. American Occupational Therapy Association. http://www.aota.org/Consumers.aspx.
  2. Board and Specialty Certifications. American Occupational Therapy Association. https://www.aota.org/Education-Careers/Advance-Career/Board-Specialty-Certifications.aspx.  
  3. Certification Eligibility Requirements. National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. https://www.nbcot.org/Students/get-certified.  
  4. What You Should Know About Occupational Therapy Professionals and Their Services. New York State Occupational Therapy Association. http://www.nysota.org/page/ConsInf