What is an occupational therapist?

What is an occupational therapist?

From helping people regain skills after an injury, surgery or a stroke to assisting people with disabilities improve their function, occupational therapists play a vital role. 

health enews checked in with Karen Hughes, senior occupational therapist at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Illinois, to learn more about the responsibilities involved in this profession: 

What is the difference between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

Typically, occupational therapists perform more activity-based therapy. Physical therapists tend to assist patients with gross motor skills while occupational therapists assist with fine motor skills. While the two professions work together to increase patient function, occupational therapists tend to focus more on functional daily activities. For example, an Occupational Therapist might help a patient re-learn how to dress themselves, write, prepare a meal safely, return to work or drive a car to improve their level of independence. 

Describe a typical day as an occupational therapist.

As an occupational therapist, I work with a variety of patients. As a Certified Hand Therapist, I work in an outpatient setting with upper-extremity injuries such as tendon repairs, wrist fractures, carpal tunnel, elbow fractures or tendonitis. I also see stroke patients who may need additional therapy to improve their functional skills. As an inpatient occupational therapist, I work closely with physical and speech therapy to ensure patients are able to return home safely following a surgery or illness. As a team, we will make recommendations as to the optimal discharge setting until a patient can be safe at home. 

How does occupational therapy help cancer patients?

As a Certified Lymphedema Therapist, I work at Advocate Sherman’s Center for Cancer Care with post-surgical breast cancer patients. I educate patients on how to reduce their risk of lymphedema and how to increase upper-extremity range of motion and strength to resume their daily activities. I also treat patients who suffer from lymphedema, swelling in an arm caused by removal of the lymph nodes. To help reduce swelling, I will perform a series of massages and bandaging. Patients are then educated on how to use compression sleeves and self-massage for home management of their swelling. 

Do your patients have “homework” outside of the occupational therapy session?

I give my patients a home exercise program on their very first day of therapy. I always stress that they cannot improve by simply coming to therapy—they need to complete their exercises at home for success. For a wrist or tendon repair, patients will see me a couple times a week for three or four months. Patients with tendonitis or carpal tunnel will typically see me two to three times a week for a month. Depending on the patient’s diagnosis, I progress with exercises that include range of motion, stretching and strengthening. 

What are common misconceptions you see about occupational therapy?

Many people think occupational therapy is solely job-related. However, the goal of occupational therapy is to help patients maximize their independence in a variety of settings post-injury or surgery whether it is at home, school or the workplace. 

What do you enjoy most about being an occupational therapist?

I love encouraging my patients. It’s rewarding to see the progress they are making each week. I also appreciate the trend toward prevention in health care. I enjoy educating patients on joint protection and ergonomics to prevent injuries that can occur from incorrect workspace design or poor use of body mechanics with daily tasks. As a profession, occupational therapists are trying to reach out and educate people before they have to come to us for treatment.

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About the Author

health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.