The Mysterious World of Occupational Therapy


Physical, occupational, and speech therapies make up the ‘big three’ disciplines in the therapy world. Among the three, occupational therapy is probably the most misunderstood. There is a bit of unintended mystery surrounding it because of the word ‘occupational’ itself. Suffice it to say that occupation is more than just what a person does for a living.

All across the country there are occupational therapists working in a variety of settings. Staff therapists employed by hospitals work with patients in anticipation of sending them home. Locum tenens therapists fill in at hospitals, private clinics, assisted living facilities, etc. Of course, we cannot forget private practice owners who do what they do while simultaneously running small businesses.

The ‘Occupation’ in Occupational

To a trained therapist, the word ‘occupation’ does not mean employment. A person’s occupation can include employment, but there are plenty of people with occupations despite not being able to work due to health restrictions. So, what is an occupation?

Occupational therapists define occupation as anything meaningful a person does throughout the course of a day. For some people, occupation includes basic self-care like showering and brushing the teeth. Occupation for someone else might be taking care of the house or engaging in a long-enjoyed hobby.

With so many different things to do on any given day, the idea of occupation takes on a much broader meaning. Therapists like to think of occupation in terms of the three most important things a person does most every day. What are those three things for you? Now, imagine not being able to do them due to some sort of medical condition that has changed your life.

Returning People to Their Occupations

Understanding what occupation means to a therapist should give us a better understanding of just what occupational therapists do. In short, they help people return to those occupations they are currently being hindered from participating in.

It turns out that occupational therapy involves both physical and mental components. In terms of the physical, therapists help patients take advantage of whatever physical abilities they have in order to once again take up a desired occupation. In terms of the mental, a lot of what occupational therapy involves is about overcoming those mental and psychological barriers that would otherwise hinder a return to occupation.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about occupational therapy is that there isn’t necessarily a manual that explains how to treat every single patient. Like physical and speech therapy, occupational therapy relies heavily on the ingenuity and creativity of the therapists.

Occupational Therapy Specialties

Another interesting thing to note about occupational therapy is that there are numerous specialties within the general discipline. For example, you might have a therapist who specializes in hands. She works with patients experiencing a loss of function in the hands due to severe osteoarthritis, an auto accident, etc.

It is the hand therapist’s job to help her patients recover as much hand function as possible. And where complete recovery is impossible, to overcome any limitations by finding new ways to do things.

Everything about occupational therapy ultimately boils down to how well therapists are able to establish personal relationships with their clients. Patients need to be able to trust their therapists, but that trust is not automatically given. It has to be earned through compassion, understanding, and high-quality care.

Among the big three disciplines in the therapy world, occupational therapy is the most misunderstood. As a career, occupational therapy is incredibly rewarding on many different levels. It is a career that offers therapists the opportunity to literally change lives every single day.

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