Rehabilitation is the process of returning something to its original condition. The word literally means “make fit again.” When it comes to workers’ comp injuries, the terms rehab and physical therapy are sometimes used interchangeably. But they do have different meanings.
Differences between Rehab and Physical Therapy
Rehabilitation, or rehab, is a broad term. In medicine, it can refer to any type of comprehensive treatment program. That might be:
MedicinePlus is a web-based resource for patients and their families. The National Library of Medicine produces this information for the National Institutes of Health. MedicinePlus notes that there are several types of therapy associated with rehabilitation. For instance, lung disease may lead to pulmonary rehab. A heart attack patient may need cardiac rehab.
Physical therapy is just one type of rehab that may be part of a patient’s recovery plan.
What Is Physical Therapy?
As the word implies, a physical therapist focuses on bodily strength and movement. To help patients recover from injuries, they may perform a musculoskeletal examination. They will consider the patient’s musculoskeletal pathology. Then they work with the patient’s physician to develop a personalized treatment plan.
Treatment may combine exercises to build strength and range of motion with pain-relieving techniques. It helps reduce pain in joints and/or muscles. It is often used to treat tendinitis, bursitis, neck and low back pain. Some physical therapists also use ultrasound or acupuncture to treat patients.
So rehab and physical therapy are not exactly the same. But if you refer to “work-related rehab,” everyone knows you’re talking about physical therapy.
What about Occupational Therapy?
There are some technical differences between physical therapy and occupational therapy, too. The word “occupational” may suggest that this type of therapy is only work-related. But an OT’s job is to assess the entire range of skills and activities needed to perform daily functions. They teach patients how to dress, cook and get around. They teach patients to use assistive devices such as a walker, a wheelchair or a reach-and-grab tool. The goal is for the patient to become more independent.
Both occupational therapists and physical therapists can evaluate the patient’s work space. Both can recommend jobsite modifications for injured workers. Both can educate patients about their physical condition.
One college says the difference between occupational and physical therapy is scope. They say a physical therapist treats the patient’s actual impairment. An occupational therapist treats that impairment in action.
Here at PhysNet, we disagree. We believe an injured worker’s recovery cannot be separated from the actions of their job. Rehab and physical therapy go hand-in-hand. That’s why our physical therapists (and occupational therapists) treat patients at their jobsite, not in a clinic.
Rehab and Physical Therapy Can Also Differ in Location
Where rehabilitation takes place depends on the amount and types of therapy needed. Rehab can be an inpatient experience for those confined to a hospital, convalescent facility or substance abuse recovery center. Physical therapy for a work-related injury is an outpatient experience. Treatment usually takes place at a clinic or in the patient’s home.
An occupational therapist’s goal is to help patients learn to function within the limits of their disability. Our physical therapists strive to help injured workers return to work fully recovered. During onsite treatment sessions, they also teach the worker to function in a safer manner in the future. Workers who know proper body positions and movement techniques can avoid re-injury. That’s even better than basic rehabilitation.
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