By Jessica J. Martinez
OTR/L, HTC, PAM , Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas
Occupational therapy, often abbreviated as “OT,” is the skilled treatment that helps individuals achieve independence in all facets of their lives. Occupational therapy doesn’t just treat medical conditions, it helps people stay engaged in the activities that give them pleasure or a sense of purpose, despite challenges.
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, therapy assists people in developing the “skills for the job of living” necessary for independent and satisfying lives. Occupational therapists work with individuals, families and groups to facilitate health and well-being by addressing the impact of social and environmental factors that contribute to exclusion and occupational deprivation.
Some of the health conditions that benefit from occupational therapy include work-related injuries including hand injuries or repetitive stress injuries, limitations following a stroke, traumatic brain injury or heart attack, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, or other serious chronic conditions, birth injuries, learning problems, or developmental disabilities, burns, spinal cord injuries, or amputations, broken bones or other injuries from falls, sports injuries, or accidents and vision or cognitive problems that threaten the ability to drive, to name just a few.
Therapists achieve the desired outcome with their patients by enhancing the individual’s ability to participate, either through modification of the environment, or by adapting the activity to better support their participation.
Traditionally, an occupational therapist will fully customize their treatment programs to improve a patient’s ability to perform daily tasks. They also do a thorough home and job site evaluation to provide instructions on how to adapt the environment to better suit their patient’s needs. OTs also master and train their patients on special equipment and offer instruction and support to family members and caregivers.
In a hospital environment, the unique perspective of occupational therapy focuses on a holistic view of individuals where many factors can influence the success of recovery, and it plays an important role in facilitating early mobilization, restoring function, preventing further decline, and coordinating care.
If a patient is hospitalized and/or critically injured, an OT will typically evaluate the patient for splints and positioning devices to both preserve joint integrity and protect skin from breakdown due to prolonged pressure. They also perform evaluations to determine safety in eating and swallowing and they make dietary recommendations. They also train families and caregivers to assist with range-of-motion exercises, safe transfers, and skin checks.
For patients who have had surgery, therapists provide training in basic self-care and mobility and evaluate the need for adaptive aids and medical equipment. They also fit their patients with wheelchairs, depending on patient readiness, and assess them to promote endurance and mobility. OTs also help medical and surgical patients with safe discharge planning and provide recommendations for transitioning to the next level of care.
Patients who have had strokes or neurological illness or surgery nearly always need neuromuscular re-education, trunk stabilization, and balance activities to improve their ability to move in and out of bed and maintain a functional upright posture necessary to perform self care and home management activities. They assist with corrective therapy to alleviate weakness and/or abnormal muscle tone through exercise, relevant simulated activities, and preventive splinting to preserve muscle balance and range of motion.
Post-orthopaedic surgical patients are trained by OTs in the areas of self-care activities such as bathing and dressing, and with special equipment that can support their healing and rehabilitation process. Therapists also provide instruction on appropriate weight bearing and/or postsurgical precautions. In addition, occupational therapists are the people who, many times, make and provide “custom” assistive and protective devices to promote healing and maximize independence.
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