Occupational Therapy: It’s not about finding a job!
“‘You’re an occupational therapist? Well I don’t need help finding a job, so I don’t need your therapy.’”
Every occupational therapist has stories about times when patients misunderstood their - for lack of a better term, and to add to the confusion - occupation.
“Occupational” often throws people off who are not familiar with the discipline because we think of our occupation as our job. The Center for Cognitive and Developmental Assessment and Remediation provides a well-put explanation:
"It is called "occupational" therapy because of the emphasis it places upon the importance of occupation (e.g., functional tasks and activities performed throughout life that are meaningful and purposeful to the individual)."
Identifying Patient Needs
“Task analysis” is how OTs identify the processes that an activity (or occupation) requires, breaking it down to understand the physical, cognitive, and social processes associated with performing the task. This analysis gives the OT the ability to identify the patient’s needs and capabilities. Perhaps there’s an area of muscle weakness that needs strengthening or an underlying cognitive deficit that is causing difficulty. In some cases they may discover persistent issues that will not improve. Once a therapist determines the root of the issues, they can begin to implement treatments to work through them.
What’s My Diagnosis?
Occupational therapy can help a wide range of diagnoses, many of which are listed below.
Cognitive: Intellectual and learning disabilities.
Neurological: Traumatic brain injury, stroke, nerve loss, Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury.
Chronic Disease/Disorders: Visual impairments, hearing impairments, speech impairments, heart disease, diabetes.
Psychiatric: Schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
Developmental Disability/Delay: Autism, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, developmental coordination disorder.
Physical: Injuries, post-surgery such as arthritis, joint replacement, and fractures, and chronic pain conditions.
Deficits resulting from these diagnoses can be addressed by occupational therapy treatment however, two individuals with the same diagnoses may have very different symptoms.
Therapists aren’t always presented with a definitive diagnosis yet they are able to address the present symptoms of underlying issues to improve daily function. Some areas OTs work to improve are:
Body: Pain, joint stiffness, inflammation, range of motion
Mind: Short and long term memory, attention span, information processing
Emotion: Emotional regulation, coping skills, mood changes, social skills
Balance: Vision, hearing, balance, coordination
As a result of these diagnoses and symptoms, patients often struggle with day to day activities, which brings back to the first topic - task analysis. Occupational therapists aim is to provide assistance in regaining function to their patients’ greatest potential.
Self-care is an area that affects many occupational therapy patients. There are endless diagnoses and symptoms that can lead to a person’s inability or difficulty in dressing, eating, bathing, toileting, and other activities that many of us take for granted. Sleep is another area where OTs can often help, especially while the patient is managing a medical condition or injury.
The person’s ability to work is also often affected by dealing with a medical condition and can be supported through OT.
Social activities used in daily life such as community integration can benefit from occupational therapy for things like interacting with others, navigating public transportation, accessing medical appointments, banks, grocery stores, etc.
General social skills such as turn-taking, proper etiquette, behavioral management, speaking clearly, and sharing information. Play, leisure, education, and household management are also life skills that are also addressed by occupational therapists.
All of these tasks, combined, form a full picture of daily life and the meaningful activities that fill each day.
The Bottom Line
Occupational therapy helps individuals manage their health conditions in order to return to or continue living their lives to the fullest. Assessing a person’s entire life situation allows an occupational therapist to identify the root cause of each issue and determine how to help strengthen the individual and remove the barriers to successfully complete the tasks most important to them. Occupational therapy is an important healthcare discipline that works effectively toward rehabilitating individuals from their medical conditions and injuries.