Accidents occur even in our best health, and unfortunately, seniors hold one of the highest rates of accidents that result in personal injury. This can be a traumatic time for everyone, and injury assessment and rehabilitative therapy are crucial to the healing process. Therapy can be presented in many forms, but today we’re going to take a look at the two most common for physical injuries: physical therapy and occupational therapy.
Physical therapists and occupational therapy practitioners require extensive certification and degrees in order to practice therapy. These are doctors with highly specialized training to get you back to being you, as soon as possible.
The American Physical Therapy Association defines physical therapy as a practice that reduces pain and improves or restores mobility, in many cases without expensive and invasive surgery, and often reduces the need for long-term use of prescription medications and their side effects.
Physical therapists diagnose and treat patients of all ages, from newborns to the very seniorest seniors. They work with medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their abilities to move and perform functions in their daily lives. Treatment plans involve techniques that promote the ability to move, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability.
Physical therapists teach patients how to prevent or manage their condition for long-term health benefits. Care is provided in a variety of settings, including hospitals, private practices, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, schools, sports and fitness facilities, work settings, and nursing homes.
“Physical therapy uses an established theoretical and scientific base, with widespread clinical applications in the restoration, maintenance, and promotion of optimal physical function,” says Lauren Aldridge, SLP assistant. “Basically, physical therapy focuses on rehabilitation of the muscles, movement, and ligaments of an injury in a very scientific way. They want to restore as much of the original functionality as possible. After the recovery period, the goal is prevention from future injury.”
Preliminary evaluations will dictate the course of treatment. This typically involves range of motion tests, ultrasounds, measuring limbs, x-rays, and so forth. Once the diagnosis has been made, pain and swelling reduction becomes the primary focus. This can be done by manual therapy, heat and cold stimulation, water stimulation, or electrical stimulation through the use of equipment similar to TENS units.
Rehabilitative therapy involves exercise, stretching, core exercises, weight lifting, and cardio. At-home exercise programs may also be prescribed. The purpose of these exercises is to regain strength in the muscles of the injured body area, so the corrective rehabilitation will remain in place, similar to what occurs in chiropractic care.
Physical therapists are able to handled virtually any motion-related injury, such as back and neck pain, broken limb recovery, sprained joint recovery, cardiac rehabilitation, wound care, cancer-related problems, stroke recovery, and more. The point is to get you moving and strong, as quickly as your body and injury will allow.
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, or AOTA, occupational therapy asks, “What matters to do?” not, “What’s wrong with you?” From this vantage point, therapy is handled in a radically different light; rather than treating the actual impairment, occupational therapy treats the impairment in action.
“Occupational therapy [practitioners] work across the lifespan to help people complete the activities that they want and need to do in order to live a fulfilling and independent life,” says Houston occupational therapy practitioner Allison Stobbe of the MedCare Pediatric Rehab Center. “[We] use every day activities during their treatment sessions. Someone may have difficulty raising their arms up, so an OTP would help that person put on a shirt, brush their teeth, or any other activity they would have done previously to take care of themselves.”
Adaptive equipment, such as reachers, dressing aids, special dishes and utensils, positioning splints, and so forth, may be recommended to help with everyday tasks. An OT’s goal is to ensure the patient is equipped to handle regular work and household activities like bathing, getting dressed, cooking, or general personal maintenance.
“We use anything that is meaningful to the patient so that the treatment will be relevant to their life,” said Stobbe. “[Occupational therapy practitioners] always strive to have client centered (or client directed) treatment plans.”
Services can include a comprehensive evaluation of the patient’s home and other environments, such as the workplace or school, guidance and education for family members and caregivers, and, if needed, work with the patient’s other doctor’s for optimal care. Occupational therapy practitioners utilize a holistic perspective, focusing on adapting the environment to the fit the patient.
“In a skilled nursing facility or assisted living facility, contact with the doctor is usually minimal. [The] therapist will often communicate with the patient about doctor’s visits through the patient. However, if a circumstance arises in which the OTP needs doctor input or approval, then contact can be made and should be made. Alternatively, in an acute care setting, contact with the doctors and nurses is essential for optimal care.”
Treatments are determined by the patient’s needs at that specific moment in time. As their needs change, so does the treatment. Goals are set after an initial evaluation and interview with the patient. As the patient’s needs change, the occupational therapist practitioner will modify treatment to meet what they need, moment by moment.
Occupational therapy focuses on living with the injury, and finding ways and assistance to make every day easier to work through. A broken limb or strained muscles can make simple things, like walking and dressing, feel impossible. They make it possible again.
The core differences between physical therapy and occupational therapy lie in purpose of treatment: physical therapy wants to heal you, where occupational therapy wants to help you live out your day-to-day routines and personal care while healing. They can often work together, particularly for seniors who may find their daily tasks more difficult than average as they age. Both sets of therapists have a goal to make you better, stronger, and more able bodied.