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Rehabilitation - Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy helps wounded, recovering and disabled people gain independence. Through the rehabilitation process, patients advance or regain the abilities they need for daily activities. Occupational therapists work with children and adults on mental, emotional and physical issues.

What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy focuses on getting patients as close to normal as possible while teaching them to adapt to their surroundings and condition. The therapist begins by assessing the patient's medical needs, history and long-term goals and then designing a treatment strategy. Goals can include training stroke patients to strengthen weak or paralyzed muscles, helping socially challenged children handle public settings or teaching veterans to use injured limbs.

Wounded or paralyzed patients learn how to perform normal tasks again, such as tying their shoes, putting on a coat and cutting their food. Patients with mental disabilities learn to complete activities such as grocery shopping and paying bills.

Occupational therapists analyze and educate patients throughout the process. OTs document all improvements or problems to see whether the plan is working. They also work with the patients' other healthcare providers to help with their overall life goals. Treatment plans last a few months to years, depending on progress and abilities. Individual session times vary from 30 minutes to two hours. During each session, patients perform multiple tasks that will help with their range-of-motion or mental development. Therapists give them exercises and movements they can start at home to further aid rehabilitation.

Therapists also assess workplaces, schools and homes to make sure they are safe for patients. Occupational therapy treatment plans may include recommendations for changes at home, office accommodations or adaptive devices that help patients acclimate to their environment. Therapists train family, friends and health assistants to assist patients.

Where occupational therapists work

OTs work in both inpatient and outpatient settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation clinics, nursing homes and schools. Therapists even visit patients at home. 

Some therapists specialize in working with children. They design developmental therapy plans for babies and help school-age children with classroom work. They may bring special equipment for children with walking problems or teach them how to stay composed and attentive.

Therapists also work in mental health facilities helping adults with mental disabilities or drug dependencies become self-sufficient and productive. They may teach patients how to interview for a job or use a map.

Occupational therapists work as part of a team within inpatient settings, making sure patients have quality care overall. Treatment plans involve giving recognition, reasoning and physical exercises to patients with brain injuries and senior citizens. They teach patients how to perform tasks safely, such as getting out of the shower. Therapists boost confidence in patients by teaching them to become more independent and helping them transition to their own homes.

Rehabilitation clinics allow therapists to specialize in one area or work with various disabilities. For instance, hand specialists concentrate on helping patients regain motion and ability in their hands and wrists. Other specialty areas include cancer, women's health and sports. Cancer occupational therapy helps people who have lost feeling and strength in their arms to regain function after cancer treatment. Some therapists work with injured athletes to recapture motor abilities and flexibility in their upper body. Other therapists work with patients with varied disabilities.

How to find an occupational therapist

Occupational therapy is an overall wellness partnership between patients and therapists. Therapists are supporters, organizers and teachers. Patients learn how to manage their lives better and make progress in their mental and physical goals.

Practitioners with experience in a specific area can create individualized therapy plans for certain needs. OT treatment plans should be well-rounded so that patients can build to better goals. The education process includes coping skills, resource recommendations and quality-of-life improvement. Plans offering preventive education help patients so that they do not relapse or fall behind.

Qualified occupational therapists hold a master's degree and are licensed by states. Therapists who have passed national certification exams are called occupational therapist registered, or OTR. Be sure to research a therapist's qualifications, work environment and experience before making a final decision.

Check Angie's List for licensing information, qualifications and member reviews for therapists in your area.