The American Occupational Therapy Association celebrated Occupational Therapy (OT) Month in April. 

OT is a nearly 100-year-old, evidence-based profession deeply rooted in science. Despite there being more than 213,000 occupational therapists, occupational therapy assistants and students nationwide, many people do not know what OT is all about. You may be surprised to know the person sitting next to you at Madrona Park had an OT teach him energy-conservation techniques after a heart attack. 

Occupational therapy is the only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities (occupations). With a holistic perspective, we don’t ask, “What’s the matter with you?”; instead, we ask, “What matters to you?”

To some people the answer to that question could be something as seemingly simple as placing a lunch order at Madison Kitchen. For someone recovering from a traumatic brain injury, the cognitive skills involved with that task can be overwhelming. Someone wearing an arm cast or brace from a fractured bone will need to know adaptive techniques to safely manage their shopping at Bert’s Red Apple. These are some of the many daily activities OTs help people successfully participate in.

Occupational therapy practitioners enable people of all ages to live life to its fullest by helping them promote health and prevent — or live better with — injury, illness or disability. The OT must meet the minimum requirement of having a master’s degree in occupational therapy and meet fieldwork requirements to qualify to sit for the national certification examination.

Therapeutic exercise; manual therapy techniques, including stretching and joint mobilization; custom orthosis fabrication; and adaptive technique training are a few of the many techniques OTs employ in practice. 

Common OT interventions include helping children with disabilities to participate fully in school and social situations, helping people recovering from injury to regain daily life skills and providing supports for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes. 

An OT can teach safe body mechanics for lifting heavy items to someone with spine arthritis to make their next trip to City People’s Garden Store a pain-free experience. 

Occupational therapy services include an individualized evaluation, during which the client/family and OT determine functional goals. These goals can range from learning to cope with post-traumatic stress, to preparing a meal after spinal cord injury, to returning to the courts of the Seattle Tennis Club after shoulder surgery. 

Following evaluation, customized treatment techniques are utilized to improve the person’s ability to perform daily activities and reach their goals. Outcome evaluations are performed throughout care to ensure that goals are being met and the treatment plan is appropriate. 

Some specialty areas within OT include pediatrics, mental health, geriatrics, neurological rehabilitation, ergonomics and hand therapy. To specialize in an area of practice, the therapist will take extra coursework and often have a certification exam requirement beyond their initial OT certification. For example, a Certified Hand Therapist (CHT) who specializes in rehabilitation of the shoulder, arm and hand must have a minimum of five years of clinical experience and 4,000 or more hours in direct practice in hand therapy. Additionally, a comprehensive test of advanced clinical skills and theory in arm and hand rehabilitation must be passed. 

Because of changes in the profession, every CHT is required to demonstrate continued professional development and competency by recertifying every five years. A CHT has the expertise to fabricate a custom hand orthosis to support a person’s arthritic thumb in the grasping of a golf club driving a ball down the fairway at Broadmoor Golf Club.

Occupational therapists can be found in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, industrial work settings, outpatient rehabilitation clinics and in the military. With daily tasks being the “occupation,” OT focus on anyone with difficulty engaging in activities that they find valuable would likely benefit from seeing an occupational therapist. 

For more information, go to the American Occupational Therapy Association website at www.aota.org.

AARON SHAW is an occupational therapist, certified hand therapist and strength coach at MoveMend (MoveMend.info) in Madison Valley.