Ask a PT: Should I Go to Physical Therapy or Occupational Therapy for a Work Injury?

Fitness class in AppletonSteve Wowzynski, MPT, CMTPT/DN

Question: I hurt my back at work and my nurse wants me to see a Physical Therapist. Why wouldn’t the referral be to Occupational Therapy since it is a work injury and I plan to return to work?


I can see where the confusion arises, as “occupation” is in the title of Occupational Therapist. While the names may be confusing, the treatment practices of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy are quite different and explain why you would be referred to Physical Therapy for your back injury.

A physical therapist in an out-patient setting addresses issues in gross motor function, big picture needs such as the function of the arms and legs, spine, and the neck that are necessary for actions like walking, stair climbing, turning your head to check blind spots while driving, lifting, reaching into a cupboard above your head, and getting on and off the floor.  Physical therapists also work on preventing falls and provide rehabilitation following surgery to the limbs, neck, and spine.  With specialized training, physical therapists are also skilled in sports medicine rehabilitation, chronic pain management, headache treatment, dry needling, and the treatment of vertigo (conditions leading to dizziness).  Other areas a physical therapist can address include lymphedema, wheelchair fitting, heart and lung recovery, developmental delay in children, and neurological issues like stroke and multiple sclerosis.

Occupational therapy in the out-patient setting addressed activities requiring fine motor function involving the hands, wrists, elbows, and perhaps shoulders. These activities include dressing with button manipulation after a stroke, getting socks on safely with a reacher after hip replacement, handwriting and tool manipulation and picking up coins after carpal tunnel release coins, and repetitive movements done at work that can occur in the elbow, wrist, and hand. Occupational therapy overlaps with physical therapy in the treatment of shoulder and elbow injuries. 

Because of the differences in the areas of the body treated, physical therapists are best prepared to treat low back, neck, and limb injuries that can occur in the workplace.  The advanced training of the physical therapists at MotionWorks Physical Therapy means that we are specialized in the treatment of work injuries with hands-on, manual therapy that speed recovery  from acute and chronic back and neck pain and spine surgeries, getting injured workers better, faster.


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