Occupational therapy is a healthcare profession [that focuses on restoring] functioning in an individual’s life in any capacity that is important to the individual being treated,” said Kathryn DeKold, Occupational Therapist, Certified Hand Therapist, and Licensed Lymphedema Therapist at Palomar Health in San Marcos, California. “This is done by using evidence-based practices and using anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, psychology, and therapeutic use of the self (drawing on human experience to aid in an occupational therapy session).”
While DeKold says an occupational therapist’s primary goal is to restore an individual’s functioning to the highest capacity, each person who works with an occupational therapist has their own unique goals. “It’s the occupational therapist’s job to set those goals, figure out what’s preventing the patient from reaching them, set realistic goals, and create a treatment plan to help achieve the goals,” she says.
Conditions treated with occupational therapy
The conditions an occupational therapist treats differ depending on the setting: for example, occupational therapy in a school may look very different from workplace ergonomics (such as evaluating workstations to prevent injury) or outpatient occupational therapy with older adults with various medical conditions .
Occupational therapists can help treat people with a variety of conditions, including:
- Brain injury
- Cerebral palsy
- Chronic pain
- Cognitive impairment
- Development delays
- Hand injuries
- Learning disabilities
- Mental problems and disorders
- Multiple sclerosis
- Sensory Processing Disorders
- Injuries to the spinal cord
- Sports injuries
- Work injuries
Benefits of occupational therapy
“Perhaps the most important benefit of occupational therapy is its goal of helping a person regain some or all of their functions so they can fulfill their responsibilities at home and work and participate in the activities they love. By working with an occupational therapist, you get a personal and specific treatment program,” says DeKold.
In addition, occupational therapy can help improve independence, regardless of a person’s age. Improved independence can resemble better self-care and self-sufficiency skills, such as going to the bathroom and brushing hair, building stamina and strength, or working on cognitive functions to drive safely or pay bills.
Who performs occupational therapy?
To become a practicing occupational therapist, a person must:
- Graduate from an Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)-accredited occupational therapy or occupational therapy assistant program, earning a master’s or doctoral degree in occupational therapy.
- Full fieldwork requirements.
- Apply for and pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam.
- Get a license in the state or jurisdiction in which they intend to practice.
- Maintain their license by taking continuing education courses.
Each state has its own requirements, but recertification generally happens every two years, says DeKold.
“It is also possible to earn specialized certifications, some of which require an additional board exam and additional continuing education requirements,” she adds.
These certifications include:
- Certified Hand Therapist (CHT)
- Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT)
- Specialized Certification in Environmental Modification (SCEM)
- Board certifications in gerontology, pediatrics, mental health, physical rehabilitation, or any other specialty
What Happens During Occupational Therapy?
While every occupational therapy appointment differs depending on the setting and the patient’s needs and goals, DeKold shares below a general overview of a typical outpatient appointment (which usually lasts between 30 and 60 minutes).
- The patient arrives at the clinic.
- The patient may be set on a heat modality (i.e., hot pack, dry heat therapy machine, or paraffin wax bath) to warm the affected area.
- The therapist does some manual therapy, meaning they use their hands to manipulate the patient’s joints and soft tissue.
- Under the guidance of the therapist, the patient performs some stretches or exercises using weights, tools and other equipment.
- The therapist fits an orthosis, such as a shoe insert, if the patient needs it.
- The therapist implements the treatment plan that has been drawn up, re-evaluates it and updates it if necessary.
To develop a treatment plan that’s tailored to each individual, occupational therapists thoroughly assess and evaluate each patient at their first appointment, examining their previous level of functioning, medical history, social history, and current deficit or limitations, says DeKold.
After the initial assessment, occupational therapists conduct tests to determine the level of deficiency and set goals based on the results of the tests and the needs and wants of the patient and family, she adds.