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What is occupational therapy? 7 ways OT can improve your quality of life

Older woman smiles at a young health caregiver as they fold paper at a table

You might be surprised by the many tools and techniques used in this 100+ year old medical specialty.

Occupational therapy was formally founded as a specialty in medical care in 1917. This was when the U.S. War Department began using “reconstruction aids” to help WWI soldiers return to independent living. It did so by using their “occupations” (interests, hobbies, jobs, etc.) as part of the rehab process.

“OT uses everyday meaningful activities as part of our intervention for rehabilitation after injury, illness or delay,” says Riley Smetzler, a PeaceHealth occupational therapist in Longview, Washington.  

Occupational therapists work with people of all ages in every stage of life. They go beyond the mechanics of movement to help people learn or relearn the skills needed to do things for themselves.

“Occupational therapists possess the unique philosophy of ‘if it matters to you, it matters to me’,” Smetzler says. “Our goals are to help each of our patients thrive in the most independent and functional ways each day.”

Who benefits from OT

It’s common to work with an occupational therapist if you have had or currently have a:

  • Work-related injury.
  • Stroke, heart attack, brain injury, amputation or other health issue.
  • Chronic and/or progressive health conditions such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress, etc.
  • Learning disability or behavior challenges in school or other social situations.
  • Physical, mental or nervous system conditions present since birth.  

Ways OT helps

Patients play an active role in setting their goals, says Aaron Varney, an OT at PeaceHealth in Longview. Occupational therapists then use their knowledge of body systems, adaptive equipment and activity modification to help patients achieve those goals and return to independent living.

Here are ways occupational therapists improve the quality of life for their patients:

  1. Help with and teach adaptive ways to independently complete daily activities. These may include personal care like dressing, eating and grooming or home-based skills like house cleaning, yardwork and cooking. OTs also can assist with personal management skills like keeping on a schedule or following a budget.
  2. Offer instruction on exercises to improve your overall strength, flexibility, endurance and posture.
  3. Educate you on ways to conserve energy and protect your joints.
  4. Recommend ergonomic changes to improve the set-up of your home or workspace. 
  5. Advise and educate you on adaptive equipment that may help you do daily activities without assistance.
  6. Make custom splints and/or braces to protect your arm, leg or other body part after a surgery to repair bone, muscle or joint injuries.
  7. Help family members or caregivers understand when or how to help.

Where and how OT happens

Occupational therapists work in settings such as:  

  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Skilled nursing facilities
  • Schools  
  • Homes

Public and private health insurance usually covers OT when it’s considered medically necessary. Each plan is different, however, so you may want to check the details of your coverage with your insurance provider.

If you or someone you know might benefit from occupational therapy, a good place to start is to talk with your primary care provider. They can help you decide and make a referral if you choose to move forward.  

portrait of Aaron C. Varney OT

Aaron C. Varney OT

Occupational Therapy
Aaron is the supervisor at PeaceHealth Outpatient Therapies. He received his BS in exercise science from Brigham Young University in 2004 and his Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Washington in 2007. He received his certification in hand therapy in 2012 and specializes in rehabilitation of upper extremity including: post-operative rehabilitation, custom orthotic fabrication, overuse syndromes, arthritis education, and activity modification. He is also certified to administer functional capacity evaluations and pre-employment screens. In 2012 Aaron authored a chapter on hand fractures in Cynthia Cooper's hand therapy text book “Fundamentals of Hand Therapy." When Aaron isn’t at work you’ll see him spending time outdoors as much as possible working on his property, hiking, camping, and backpacking with his wife and four children. He also enjoys running, mountain biking, and playing the guitar and piano.