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What does my doctor mean I need occupational therapy?

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Posted: Monday, April 15, 2013 12:04 am

FAIRBANKS — What is this “occupational therapy”? I am retired and I don’t need a job. Is it like physical therapy? What does OT stand for? Over tired? Over time?

Many people have heard of occupational therapy, or OT, but do not understand what it is all about. Technically, it is defined by the American Occupational Therapy Association as “The therapeutic use of work, self-care, and play activities to increase development and prevent disability. It may include adaptation of a task or environment to achieve maximum independence and to enhance the quality of life.”

Occupation is the basis of occupational therapy and is defined as a regular functional activity that occupies one’s time. Functional activity is described as performing meaningful activities while improving strength and mobility. This can include many of the following activities:

• Self care: Activities of daily living (ADL), to include eating, dressing, sleeping, bathing, cooking and grocery shopping.

• Work: Effort exerted to make something, perform a task.

• Leisure: Free time that is used to do something enjoyable, such as a hobby, sports, reading, writing and travel.

As therapists, it is important for us to figure out what is limiting a person’s ability to perform these functional tasks and find a way for them to complete them successfully and independently. Physical therapy does exercises to improve strength, range of motion of particular muscle and body movements such as walking, whereas occupational therapy does similar exercises and activities to improve functional tasks as self-care, hobbies, returning to work. This may include building strength, coordination, thinking skills, or researching adaptive alternatives to assist in performing the activity.

Who can benefit from occupational therapy?

Anybody with a physical, mental or behavioral limitation can benefit from assistance to return to normal functional activity. Examples of OT interventions are as follows, but are not limited to these:

• Arthritis: Splinting to support sore joints or aid in improving the use of the hand or arm, adaptive equipment to improve the ability to cook, write, groom, dress, exercises and joint protection instruction to improve activities of daily living, hobbies and work.

• Neurological to include stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis: Range of motion, strengthening, and visual perceptual training to improve upper extremity use and activities of daily living, adaptations to the home to improve independence with ADL and wheelchair management.

• Hand injuries from trauma, broken wrist, elbow or finger, repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, surgery for tendon injury to regain use of the hand for ADL, work or hobbies

• Developmental delay: infant learning, school-based therapy, sensory processing disorders to improve learning abilities, attention, daily living skills and motor skills for writing.

• Behavioral health: assist with coping skills and stress management.

• Work injuries: Functional capacity evaluations for return to work, work adaptations and ergonomic assessments.

• Orthopedic: recovery from total joints, fractures to complete daily living skills like bathing, dressing, cooking, gardening and work tasks.

• Equipment assessments for wheelchairs and other equipment to help with independence with activities of daily living.

Where do occupational therapists work?

As noted above, occupational therapy functions are many and diversified and defined by the setting in which occupational therapy is found. These settings include in-patient hospitals, which include medical, rehabilitation, and behavioral health units; skilled nursing facilities; schools, to include public and private settings; outpatient clinics, to include hand therapy, orthopedic and neurological recovery and work re-entry programs; home health agencies; infant learning centers; outpatient behavioral health clinics; and more.  

As you can see, occupational therapists have a diversified role in the recovery of functional skills and can be found in many places and therefore can easily be misunderstood. The underlying basic principle and goal, no matter what setting, is to increase or adapt environments to meet the individual’s unique needs and wants to become as independent, functional, developmentally, and emotionally and physically pain free as possible.

So when your doctor says you need occupational therapy, maybe you will understand better how OTs put the “fun” in functional.

Cathy Franciol, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist at the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital Rehabilitation Services Outpatient Clinic.

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