Learning the Difference Between Occupational and Physical Therapy

Learning the Difference Between Occupational and Physical Therapy
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As is common for someone with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), I’ve done plenty of physical therapy (PT).

After my diagnosis at 22, I was referred to PT to work on many long-standing problems that had never been resolved because we weren’t viewing things in the context of EDS. These issues included my shoulder and ankle, which were badly damaged playing sports in high school. My therapists also taught me how to walk properly, as my EDS had resulted in a movement pattern that was damaging my joints.

So, I’m very familiar with PT, and I’m used to doing lots of exercises. Throughout my years in PT, my therapists and I learned that it usually takes me up to six times longer to make the progress that someone without EDS does after sustaining a similar injury.

While this was initially disheartening, I later realized it was actually good news. I had never managed to make progress with my PT before my diagnosis. Now, even if it took longer, at least I could make some headway!

After a recent finger injury, I underwent occupational therapy (OT) for the first time. Despite the time I’ve spent in rehab in the past, I’m a little embarrassed to say I never really knew the difference between the two types of therapy. OT and PT patients often attend the same facilities while exercising, so I never really gave it much thought.

I’ve since learned that PT focuses on body movement and mechanics, while OT focuses more on helping patients perform important daily tasks.

For example, one of my therapist’s goals is for me to comfortably grip a hairbrush handle. Currently, I can only grip it with a thumb and the first two fingers of my hand. That’s a different type of goal-setting than I’m used to, but it makes sense.

It’s difficult for me to write, as I can’t curl my injured finger out of the way very well. I’m quite adept at doing things with my left hand due to all my shoulder damage, so I often just work around my limitations.

With OT, however, my therapist encourages me to work through limitations rather than finding ways around them, which makes sense to me. However, I’ve realized that sometimes I have a habit of avoiding a limitation rather than trying to fix it.

While PT and OT have a number of similarities, they also have differences. I haven’t done PT in a few years. The extensive therapy I had in my mid-20s helped me to improve the many compensations that were contributing to my pain and to the injuries.

OT has allowed me a different approach to progress. It has encouraged me to push my limitations in a healthy and appropriate way. And that’s a lesson I’ll keep in mind going forward.

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Note: Ehlers-Danlos News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Ehlers-Danlos News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Ehlers-Danlos.

An avid equestrian and educator, Karen has been a columnist at BioNews — the publisher of this site — since 2019. She was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome in 2009 after years of searching for a diagnosis that explained her symptoms. Karen enjoys working with her students, riding and caring for her two horses (Cherry and Spotty), and connecting with others in the rare disease community through her writing.
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An avid equestrian and educator, Karen has been a columnist at BioNews — the publisher of this site — since 2019. She was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome in 2009 after years of searching for a diagnosis that explained her symptoms. Karen enjoys working with her students, riding and caring for her two horses (Cherry and Spotty), and connecting with others in the rare disease community through her writing.
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