Occupational therapy

Occupational therapy supports people with health concerns that prevent them from carrying out activities. The term 'occupation' refers to activities that allow people to live independently. This could include self-care, everyday tasks, work and leisure.

The role of an occupational therapist is to identify difficulties you encounter day-to-day and develop practical solutions. This may involve adapting your environment, trying a different tactic or using specialist equipment.

On this page we will explore occupational therapy in more detail and look at how an occupational therapist can help you regain your independence.

The aim of occupational therapy

Occupational therapy takes a holistic approach to health. This means it looks at the person as a whole. It takes both mental and physical health into account alongside independence and well-being. The aim of the therapy is to help a person gain greater independence and increase satisfaction in all areas of their life.

Working with adults and children, occupational therapists assist people with a variety of conditions. Commonly the difficulties people face are surrounding physical ailments, mental illness or learning disabilities.

Some of these conditions are present from birth, others develop later in life and some are the result of an accident or bout of illness. Occupational therapy can also be used as part of a rehabilitation programme.

How does an occupational therapist help?

Occupational therapists are trained to find solutions to everyday difficulties you may be facing. For example, if you find it difficult to get to your local supermarket, your therapist will work with you to find a solution to this. They may advise you to consider an alternative (could you shop online?) or they may enlist specialist equipment (could a mobility scooter help?).

The therapist will consider all of your needs. This covers your physical, social, environmental and psychological needs. Supporting you in this way is designed to open you up to new possibilities and allow you to approach life with confidence in your abilities.

Who can it help?

Occupational therapy can help people of all ages and backgrounds. It is designed to help anyone who may benefit from receiving support.

Children and young people

Young people may need support if illness, disability or family circumstances stop them from carrying out daily tasks. A therapist can help with self-care as well as leisure activities and being productive (i.e. going to school or volunteering).

Therapists may also provide support to family members and/or teachers when working with children.

Teenagers and adults

There are many reasons why teenagers and adults may need support. This is the stage of life where people really develop their sense of identity and independence. If a health concern is getting in the way of this, an occupational therapist can help.

Older people

The aim of occupational therapy for older people is to help them continue doing activities that are important to them. In turn, this helps them to maintain their well-being.

A therapist will understand the difficulties older people face. They will work to increase confidence and social interaction. Exercise programmes and equipment may be brought in to maintain mobility - a key element of independence.

What can occupational therapy help with?

Occupational therapy can help with anything that hampers your ability to carry out the activities that are important to you. This covers physical conditions, mental health concerns, long-term illnesses, injury and learning disabilities. Take a look below for some examples.

Amputation

If you have had an amputation, you and your family will need to make adjustments. The rehabilitation period in particular may require support. This is when an occupational therapist can help.

Your therapist will help you to identify and navigate any physical, emotional or mental obstacles you are facing. There are many different ways they can help, including:

  • Helping you to carry out everyday tasks like getting dressed as well as more complicated tasks like cooking.
  • Teaching you techniques to maintain or build your strength.
  • Assisting you with any prosthesis.
  • Helping you navigate your environment.

Arthritis

Arthritis is a painful condition that affects the joints, making them stiff and difficult to use. This can affect people's ability to carry out necessary tasks. To help overcome this an occupational therapist can support in the following ways:

  • Give advice on equipment to help with activities like cooking or gardening.
  • Advise ways of conserving your energy.
  • Recommending relevant support groups or services.

Disability

Whether you were born with a physical disability or you became disabled later, there may be things you find more difficult than others to do. The role of occupational therapy here is to help you pursue these activities and the hobbies you love.

An occupational therapist will work alongside you and focus on:

  • Modifying or adapting activities you want to do.
  • How you feel about yourself and your ability to tackle problems that present themselves.
  • Altering social or physical environments to reduce restrictions.
  • Coming to terms with your abilities.
  • Setting personal goals that are both realistic and achievable.

Learning disabilities

Occupational therapists often provide support to people with learning disabilities. They can help you develop life skills and enjoy leisure activities as independently as possible. They can do this in the following ways:

  • Helping you to get involved in household activities like cleaning and cooking.
  • Encouraging you to use public transport so you can become more independent.
  • Supporting you to develop working skills so you can enter employment or voluntary work.

Long-term conditions

If you have a long-term health condition or injury you may benefit from occupational therapy. Such conditions include traumatic brain injury, stroke, dementia, cancer, AIDS and heart/lung conditions.

Depending on the nature of your condition, an occupational therapist could help with the following:

  • Helping you to remain in employment.
  • Advising you on how to manage your condition effectively.
  • Helping you to manage fatigue and related emotional symptoms.
  • Using home adaptations so you can remain independent for longer.

Mental health

There are many mental health conditions that can benefit from occupational therapy. The aim of occupational therapy in these cases is to help create a sense of purpose and (where relevant) enhance the recovery journey.

There are various ways in which an occupational therapist can do this, including:

  • Helping you to improve levels of self-care.
  • Working with you to identify and improve work skills so you can apply for jobs and remain in employment.
  • Suggesting ways for you to access mainstream leisure activities.

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

MS is a degenerative disease that causes fatigue and mobility issues. Helping those with MS retain independence for longer is a key aim of occupational therapy. This can involve:

  • Recruiting the use of equipment to stay mobile.
  • Improving physical safety and assessing hazards.
  • Finding ways to carry out day-to-day tasks like cleaning and cooking.
  • Improving self-esteem.

Rehabilitation

Occupational therapy can also be used as part of a rehabilitation programme. This could be after an accident, illness or surgery. In this capacity the therapy can help your recovery by encouraging you to regain independence and build confidence.

Returning to work

Sometimes an illness or accident means you have to take time off work. For some, the return to work can be challenging. An occupational therapist can help you cope with the transition by identifying goals and barriers to your return. They can assess your role and your working environment and suggest coping methods to use when at work.

Other ways a therapist can help include:

  • Providing additional training you may need.
  • Helping you cope with issues like discrimination or prejudice.
  • Liaising with your employers to manage your return to work and ensuring the relevant people are aware of your condition.

The process

The occupational therapy process covers 11 stages. Within these stages the therapist will assesses and treat you. This will be according to your specific needs and the nature of your condition. 

The process is as follows: 

  1. referral
  2. information gathering
  3. initial assessment
  4. needs identification/problem formation
  5. goal setting
  6. action planning
  7. action
  8. ongoing assessment and revision of action
  9. outcome and outcome measurement
  10. end of intervention or discharge
  11. review.

Every case will differ, but the therapist will usually touch upon each aspect at some stage. During assessment, occupational therapists identify the activities that are most meaningful to you. This helps them to tailor programmes specifically to you.

Occupational therapy techniques

There are many different techniques that can be used within occupational therapy. In general however they fall into the following categories:

  • approaching activities differently
  • adapting your environment
  • using specialist equipment
  • activity grading.

Approaching activities differently

If you are unable to carry out an activity, your occupational therapist can look at different ways to overcome obstacles. This usually means taking a different approach. The aim is to help you carry out the activities you want, albeit in an alternative way.

For example - if you are unable to stand for a long time, but want to be able to do the ironing, your therapist may suggest you sit down while ironing. Getting an adjustable ironing board and practising doing it this way is an easy and helpful solution.

Adapting your environment

In some cases it may be necessary to make your environment more suitable to your needs. An occupational therapist can assess your house, workplace and travel routes to see if there are any adaptations they can make to help.

Such adaptations may include:

  • installing ramps for wheelchair access
  • rearranging cupboards and clearing clutter to improve visibility
  • fitting a stair lift
  • installing rails to help you move around
  • providing raised toilet seats, a bath lift or shower seat to make your bathroom easier to use.

Using special equipment

Your therapist may introduce special tools and equipment. These help to make the activities and hobbies you want to carry out more accessible. They may also reduce risk of accidents, thus improving your personal safety.

Equipment that may be recommended include:

  • walking aids such as a stick, frame or chair
  • chunky pens to make writing easier
  • cutlery with larger handles to make them easier to use
  • non-slip mats in the bathroom
  • voice-controlled software
  • specialist keyboard or mouse for the computer.

Activity grading

Your occupational therapist may use a technique called activity grading to help you resume your hobbies or return to work. This involves breaking a task down into manageable stages.

An example of this may be if you want to be able to walk to work, but you can't manage it at the moment. Your therapist may recommend that you try walking part of the way and then get a bus/taxi the rest of the way. Over time you will be encouraged to gradually build up the length of your walk. This will increase your strength and endurance and over time you will reach your goal. Your therapist may also incorporate walking aids to make the task more achievable.

Another related technique is called graded exposure. This works in a similar way but is more focused on the psychological side of rehabilitation. It is used to help you establish routines that are meaningful to you and build your self-confidence.

Finding an occupational therapist

There are different routes you can take to find an occupational therapist. You could ask your doctor or local clinical commissioning group (CCG) for a referral. Alternatively you could contact an occupational therapist directly.

If you do decide to find a therapist yourself, it is important to ensure they have the right training. The title 'occupational therapist' is protected by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). This means that only those who are registered with HCPC can call themselves occupational therapists.

The Therapy Directory checks to ensure listed occupational therapists are registered with the HCPC.

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