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Occupational Therapy (OT)


Zacharia Isaac

, MD, Brigham and Women's Hospital

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2023
Topic Resources

Occupational therapy (OT) focuses on self-care activities and improvement of fine motor coordination of muscles and joints, particularly in the upper extremities. Unlike physical therapy Physical Therapy (PT) Physical therapy aims to improve joint and muscle function (eg, range of motion, strength) and thus improve the patient’s ability to stand, balance, walk, and climb stairs. For example, physical... read more , which focuses on muscle strength and joint range of motion, OT focuses on activities of daily living (ADLs) because they are the cornerstone of independent living.

Basic ADLs (BADLs) include eating, dressing, bathing, grooming, toileting, and transferring (ie, moving between surfaces such as the bed, chair, and bathtub or shower).

Instrumental ADLs (IADLs) require more complex cognitive functioning than BADLs. IADLs include preparing meals; communicating by telephone, writing, or computer; managing finances and daily medication regimens; cleaning; doing laundry, food shopping, and other errands; traveling as a pedestrian or by public transportation; and driving. Driving is particularly complex, requiring integration of visual, physical, and cognitive tasks.


OT can be initiated when a physician writes a referral for rehabilitation, which is similar to writing a prescription. The referral should be detailed, including a brief history of the problem (eg, type and duration of the disorder or injury) and establishing the goals of therapy (eg, training in IADLs). Lists of occupational therapists may be obtained from a patient’s insurance carrier, a local hospital, state occupational training organizations, or the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Patients are evaluated for limitations that require intervention and for strengths that can be used to compensate for weaknesses. Limitations may involve motor function, sensation, cognition, or psychosocial function. Examiners determine which activities (eg, work, leisure, social, learning) patients want or need help with. Patients may need help with a general type of activity (eg, social) or a specific activity (eg, attending church), or they may need to be motivated to do an activity.

Therapists may use an assessment instrument to help in the evaluation. Several different functional measurement scales are available, and their use depends on the patient's condition, specific functional domains that need assessment, and the clinical setting. Examples include the Barthel Index, Katz Index, Functional Independence Measure (FIM), and Patient Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS). Patients are asked about their mobility; continence; ability to dress, toilet, transfer position, feed, walk, and communicate; social and family roles; habits; and social support systems. The availability of resources (eg, community programs and services, private attendants) should be determined. A higher score on the Barthel, Katz, FIM, or PROMIS indicates more independence.

Occupational therapists may also assess the home for hazards and make recommendations to ensure home safety (eg, removing throw rugs, increasing hallway and kitchen lighting, moving a night table within reach of the bed, placing a family picture on a door to help patients recognize their room).

Determining when driving is a risk and whether driver retraining is indicated is often done by occupational therapists with specialized training. Information that can help older drivers and their caregivers in coping with changing driving abilities is available from the American Occupational Therapy Association and the American Association for Retired Persons (also see The Older Driver Overview of the Older Driver For many older adults, driving an automobile is their preferred option for community transportation. Medical disorders that impair driving in older adults may have two serious adverse outcomes... read more ).


OT may consist of one consultation or frequent sessions of varying intensity. Sessions may occur in various settings:

  • Acute care, rehabilitation, outpatient, adult day care, skilled nursing, or long-term care facilities

  • The home (as part of home health care)

  • Senior housing developments

  • Life-care or assisted-living communities

Occupational therapists develop an individualized program to enhance patients’ motor, cognitive, communication, and interaction capabilities. The goal is not only to help patients do ADLs but also to do appropriate preferred leisure activities and to foster and maintain social integration and participation.

Before developing a program, a therapist observes patients doing each activity of the daily routine to learn what is needed to ensure safe, successful completion of the activities. Therapists can then recommend ways to eliminate or reduce maladaptive patterns and to establish routines that promote function and health. Specific performance-oriented exercises are also recommended. Therapists emphasize that exercises must be practiced and motivate patients to do so by focusing on exercise as a means of becoming more active at home and in the community.

Patients are taught creative ways to facilitate social activities (eg, how to get to museums or church without driving, how to use hearing aids or other assistive communication devices in different settings, how to travel safely with or without a cane or walker). Therapists may suggest new activities (eg, volunteering in foster grandparent programs, schools, or hospitals).

Patients are taught strategies to compensate for their limitations (eg, to sit when gardening). The therapist may identify various assistive devices that can help patients do many activities of daily living (see table ). Most occupational therapists can select wheelchairs appropriate for patients’ needs and provide training for people with upper-extremity amputations. Occupational therapists may construct and fit devices to prevent contractures and treat other functional disorders.

NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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