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What is Occupational Therapy?

What does an occupational therapist do?
Individuals sometimes experience problems with activities that they engage in every day. Because these activities occupy a person's time and energy, we call them occupations. A man in a car accident who sustains a head injury may need to learn how to bathe, dress, and feed himself all over again and could turn to an occupational therapist for help. The occupational therapist might also help him learn new ways to succeed at his job, communicate more effectively with his family, manage his stress or anger, find helpful leisure activities, or prepare his meals. Whatever such a person decides is a meaningful occupation will become the focus of a therapist's interventions.

Where do occupational therapists work?

  • ACUTE CARE HOSPITALS: A therapist evaluates a patient admitted to a hospital with an acute illness or recent injury. Often this evaluation occurs with individuals who have serious medical conditions. During the evaluation, the therapist explores the patient's abilities to do basic activities. Within brief patient stays, the therapist may do some initial treatment such as the application of splints or basic self-care tasks until the patient reaches a stable level of functioning and is either transferred to another facility or released.
  • REHABILITATION HOSPITALS: A patient is generally admitted to a rehabilitation facility when medically stable and ready to work more aggressively on therapy. A therapist evaluates the patient and then helps with a process of re-learning daily activities or practicing new methods to engage in occupations. A right-handed woman with the loss of feeling or control on the right side of her body after a cerebrovascular accident (stroke) may want to dress, groom, or feed herself using only her left hand and master ways of conserving her energy as she does so.
  • MENTAL HEALTH FACILITIES: Whether the facility is a hospital, clinic, halfway house, prison, or community agency, an occupational therapist offers meaningful occupations to individuals with mental illness. These occupations may increase activity levels, reduce anxiety, improve problem solving, increase social skills, or enhance work or leisure skills. The aim is to help the person function as well as possible in whatever community he or she expects to join.
  • CHILDREN'S HOSPITALS: An occupational therapist facilitates the growth and development of premature babies, children, and teens. A therapist might move the limbs of a severely burned teen to allow participation in daily activities, or engage a toddler or child in activities that promote the sensation, social skills, or movement patterns that will allow successful completion of age-appropriate occupations.
  • PUBLIC SCHOOLS: A therapist helps physically, emotionally, socially, culturally, or intellectually challenged children and teens to participate in the activities required in school environments. A therapist might place a splint on a child's arm to help with holding a pencil, or help a student develop capacity in tasks such as cutting paper, opening a milk container, zipping a jacket, or playing a game with others.
  • COMMUNITY SITES: An occupational therapist may treat patients in the home or in community agencies. A therapist might modify furniture placement so that a patient can move safely around the home. Or a therapist might work in after-school programs, shelters for homeless persons, centers for those recovering from alcohol abuse, or wellness clubs for older persons. Here, the goal is to help individuals with occupational problems or to prevent future problems through meaningful activities.
  • WORK HARDENING CLINICS: A worker may have been injured on the job and need more strength or endurance to return to work. A worker may need to learn how to do a job differently to prevent pain or further injury. A therapist would help with these tasks and might also educate personnel in industries about safety, correct ways to position the body for work, effective stress management, retirement planning, or the prevention of injuries.