What Is Occupational Therapy & What Does It Do?

A Guide To Occupational Therapy

Health conditions, whether they’re physical or mental, long-term or fleeting, can seriously inhibit the way you’re able to live your life. Whether it’s a broken bone stopping you from playing sport, anxiety making every working day a struggle, or symptoms of a chronic illness causing daily challenges, it can be tough to find a way to continue to do the things you need or want to do when you’re struggling with your health.

Occupational therapy is a healthcare service that’s designed specifically to support you in living your life as close to normally as possible during these times. It enables people to retain their independence throughout (and often after) dealing with an illness, injury, or other condition, which can be a huge factor in overall wellbeing. 

We’re here to give you an overview of all things occupational therapy, including what it really is, what the process involves, and how it might be able to help you.


What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy is a healthcare service that focuses on helping people develop, recover, or maintain their ability to complete everyday tasks or activities, otherwise known as ‘occupations’. It’s a broad discipline that covers injuries, illnesses, mental health conditions, learning disabilities, effects of aging, and more, but no matter what it’s in response to, the practice of occupational therapy usually revolves around two key steps: assessment and intervention.

These two steps – the monitoring of difficulties followed by the provision of techniques and approaches that can be used to overcome them – are invariably designed to help people to maintain their independence. Holding on to the ability to complete everyday tasks like working, socialising, exercising, and keeping their home clean can be an important factor in people’s wellbeing, and occupational therapy exists to help people do just that.


What is an occupational therapist?

Occupational therapists are the professionals who carry out occupational therapy. To become a fully qualified occupational therapist, you must complete a degree or apprenticeship degree in occupational therapy before registering with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). However it’s not uncommon for occupational therapists to also hold other qualifications and accreditations, as knowledge of psychology and counselling skills are also important facets of an occupational therapist’s skillset.


What does occupational therapy do?

The nature of occupational therapy depends strongly on what health condition, disability, injury, or illness is being treated. However, there are basic principles that underline the practice in general.

As already mentioned, occupational therapists will typically begin with a monitoring or assessment phase, during which the therapist will develop an understanding of the condition you’re facing and how it affects your capacity to live your life to the fullest. 

For example, if an occupational therapist is consulting somebody with rheumatoid arthritis, they might notice things like poor range of motion, joint pain, and tiredness as primary symptoms that cause day-to-day difficulties with ‘occupations’, like inability to do a basic level of exercise or work a laborious job.

With this knowledge, the occupational therapist can then move on to the second stage of their process, which is to formulate and deliver advice and actionable techniques on how to overcome these difficulties. This might come in the form of:

  • Practising carrying out occupations in manageable stages
  • Teaching a different way to complete the same occupations
  • Making recommendations on how to avoid or minimise the occupations
  • Providing devices that can enable occupations to be carried out with more ease

Using the same example of somebody with rheumatoid arthritis, after assessing the occupations their patient is struggling to complete, an occupational therapist might make interventions including:

  • Formulating a recommended program of exercise to strengthen joints
  • Sourcing specialist devices to make difficult tasks like holding small instruments easier
  • Teaching modified ways of completing day-to-day tasks, like buttoning a shirt
  • Recommending workplace modifications that can help make work simpler

The interventions made by an occupational therapist will vary depending on the condition they’re working with, but they all revolve around helping people to maintain their independence to uphold the quality of life they’re used to.


What can occupational therapy help with?

Occupational therapy is a healthcare service that’s applicable to many different conditions, ranging from simple injuries to complex learning disabilities. It’s commonly used to support:

People with physical disabilities

People in wheelchairs, amputees, and anyone with a physical disability such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis can potentially benefit from an occupational therapist’s interventions. These might include techniques for dressing or cooking, or recommendations on adaptations to the workplace to make their job easier. 

People with learning disabilities

Learning disabilities such as dyslexia, processing issues, or ADHD can make day-to-day occupations more difficult, but occupational therapists can help develop techniques to overcome these difficulties. These might be focused on important tasks for independence, like cooking or cleaning, or developing skills for employment.

People with long-term health conditions

At the onset of long-term health conditions such as cancer, diabetes, COPD, and arthritis, occupational therapists can help to assess potential difficulties and deliver relevant interventions. These might be geared towards reducing pain from regular activities, maintaining good levels of fitness, or adapting the workplace to suit new needs.

People with mental health conditions

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions can all cause great difficulties when it comes to maintaining independence and proper functioning, but occupational therapists can deliver interventions targeted specifically at these issues. The focus in these conditions might be to improve their ability to look after their basic needs, engage socially, or manage their finances. 

People with debilitating injuries

Injuries, whether they’re short term or long term, can be jarring in that they suddenly impose limitations. Occupational therapists can devise strategies to overcome these limitations and regain independence, such as alternative ways to dress themselves, use of specialist devices around the house, or adaptations to the way they work.

Older people

As people age, their ability to complete everyday occupations can suffer. Occupational therapists can support older people by developing techniques that help them to maintain their abilities or implementing specialist devices that help keep them safe, such as walking aids or changes around the home.