Before April, which happens to be Occupational Therapy Month, is over, here’s a question for you.

Do you know the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy?

Give up?

Well, it’s not super easy for those who don’t have a degree in the fields. In fact, even a veteran occupational therapist of 27 years had a hard time putting it in a nutshell because the two are closely related. Both are about rehabilitation after an injury or surgery. Both must have a thorough understanding of anatomy and physiology.

“Because of our name, occupational therapy, we’re not understood as well as physical therapy,” says Ann Maggard, an occupational therapist and director of Sports Plus Hand Center in North Charleston.

“People actually think that occupational therapists find people jobs. No, we don’t do that,” says Maggard, almost cracking up. “That’s vocational rehabilitation.” (We won’t go there.)

“What occupational means is that we use different activities to get our desired goals. ... The biggest differentiation is that we use more functional tasks to get what we’re going for rather than exercise machines and weights. Say if someone is having trouble buttoning his shirt, we would use buttoning the shirt or using buttons.”

OT vs. PT

In other words, occupational therapy and physical therapy basically have different focuses.

Occupational therapy focuses on evaluating and returning the ability of people to do basic daily tasks, such as buttoning a shirt, and to regain independence at home and work. They use exercises and therapies that mimic those activities and restore function.

Physical therapists focus more on musculoskeletal injuries and rehabilitation. They evaluate and diagnose movement dysfunctions and work to rebuild muscle groups usually via exercises to improve strength, balance and range of motion.

Regaining grip

James Simmons, 60, of St. George was among the patients at Sports Plus Hand Center last week.

Simmons was injured in Cross last May when the 18-wheeler he was driving was struck head-on by a car that crossed the center line.

“I was in pretty rough shape,” says Simmons, who was released from the hospital within 24 hours. “It was all muscle aches and spasms. My fingers were stiff. I couldn’t bend the fingers in either hand. My fingers just froze up. Nothing was broken, but it felt like it was on fire and tingling.”

Months later, he tried occupational therapy to try to avoid surgery, but it didn’t work. Now, after undergoing cubital tunnel and carpal tunnel release surgery on his left arm, he is working to regain the grip in his left hand.

The injury has been a hardship. While he’s been able to work part time riding with a crew but not driving, he has burned half of the 800 hours of sick time he had stockpiled over the years and is working on the other half.

“I can’t return to truck driving until I’m released for duty,” Simmons says. “I miss driving. I really like driving.”


Likewise, Donald “Donnie” Brown, 36, of Cottageville is ready to get back to normal.

Last February, the supervisor at a bagging plant for animal food helped work with a malfunctioning threading machine. The machine kicked on and pulled his right hand into it. Before Brown could turn it off, it cracked his third metacarpal bone, cut his hand deeply and crushed a few veins.

“At first, I thought, oh, my goodness. What’s going to happen? I’ve never broken anything, and my whole hand was in the machine. I thought, ‘Am I going to lose it? I didn’t know, but luckily, only one bone was broken.”

Despite the fact that Brown was released from the hospital the same day — and returned to work — the injury required surgery. A month later, he had a plate with eight screws put in his right hand. And, yes, he’s right-handed.

Brown has been working with Maggard to restore range of motion and fine motor skills. She says he’s making quick progress because of his determination.

He said, “I’m definitely not letting my hand be too lazy. I’m trying to use it. I’m just glad they are getting my movement back.”

Though he doesn’t need his hand to function fully for work, Brown, who is married and has three kids, loves to work on cars and to fish and needs his function back.