What is an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists are an allied health professional who focus on improving independence and participation for people with disabilities and illnesses. Occupational therapists are skilled at looking at how disability, illness and chronic conditions impact the things that a person wants and needs to do. 

Occupational therapists will work with a person to identify what day-to-day activities they are having difficulties completing and suggest ways to increase a person’s independence and participation in these activities. Interventions prescribed by an occupational therapist are varied and person-centred but may include: education, adapting your environment through home modifications or assistive technology, adapting the way you complete activities, as well as therapeutic activities and exercises.

How are Occupational Therapists trained?

In Australia, occupational therapists complete a four-year degree at a World Federation of Occupational Therapy accredited University. During their degree student occupational therapists undertake a combination of class work and 1000 hours of clinical placement to gain both professional knowledge and practical experience in the field. 

To be called an occupational therapist in Australia, a person is required to have successfully completed their University degree and be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner National Regulation Agency (AHPRA).

What services do Occupational Therapists offer?

Occupational therapists work in a range of settings and with people at all stages of life. However, occupational therapists working in rheumatology will work with you to find the best ways to manage your symptoms and help you to be as independent as possible. The types of interventions that an occupational therapist will prescribe will be dependent on your presentation and whether you are in a period of remission or exacerbation, post-surgery or in need of conservative treatment. 

After completing an assessment to determine what areas you are having difficulty with, an occupational therapist will help you to set goals on what is most important for you to work on, and prescribe interventions to help you achieve these goals.

To help manage your symptoms your occupational may prescribe some of the following interventions:

  • Education and training
  • Assistive technology and home modifications
  • Orthotics
  • Therapeutic exercise and activities
  • Psychosocial support

Education and training:
Education and training has been found to be beneficial to people living with rheumatic conditions. Your occupational therapist may provide you education and training on how to:

  • Protect your joints to reduce stress on your joints and decrease pain
  • Conserve energy so that you can have more energy to do what you want to do
  • Simplify and adapt the way you complete tasks to eliminate unnecessary work and body movements which may cause pain.  
  • Manage pain and increase your tolerance to complete meaningful activities.
  • Change your environment to ensure correct body mechanics and positioning.

This education and training should be tailored to your specific daily activities and may be provided verbally, through written means, or be practically shown to you.

Assistive Technology and Home Modifications:
Assistive technology may be prescribed to increase independence for people who have pain or limited movement in their arms, fingers, hips, knees and spine. The prescribed equipment is designed to help you to complete your everyday activities. For example, you may need light weight, long handled tools so you can continue to work in the garden, the prescription of a kettle tipper so you can continue to may yourself cups of tea, or a raised toilet seat to get on and off the toilet. 

Your occupational therapist may also recommend various home modifications to help you manage more independently in your home environment. For instance, changing your door knobs to door handles may mean you open and close doors more easily, or installing a ramp at your front access may mean you can access your home without the same level of pain as going up and down stairs.

Orthotics, or splints as they are more commonly known, are used to rest, protect, reduce pain and prevent further deformity at the joint. However, not everyone will benefit from a splint and splints serve different purposes depending on if the condition is in an acute or chronic phase. As such splints may be worn for different periods of time and for different activities depending on the need. Splints can either be customed-designed or pre-fabricated by the occupational therapist and are typically made out of a thermoplastic or neoprene material. Additionally, compression garments may be prescribed to assist when swelling or inflammation occurs. 

Therapeutic exercises and activities
Occupational therapists will often prescribe exercises and activities to help you maintain or increase your range of movement and reduce stiffness, without causing further inflammation or pain at the joint. The prescribed exercises should promote proper body alignment and stabilisation of joints, and the type of exercises prescribed will vary depending on if you are post-surgery, in an acute flare up or at a chronic stage of your condition.

Psychosocial Support
Occupational therapists are also able to provide psychosocial support to people whose participation in meaningful activities has been reduced due to their rheumatological condition. 

When should I see an Occupational Therapist?

You should see an occupational therapist if your condition is stopping you from participating in any day-to -day activities that you want or need to complete. For example, your pain may limit your ability to complete your leisure activities or make yourself meals. Your stiffness and pain might make brushing your teeth or dressing yourself difficult, while your fatigue may mean you have stopped going out and seeing friends and family. 

How may I find a Occupational Therapists who has a specialist interest in rheumatology conditions?

You may find an occupational therapist who specialises in rheumatology by:

  • Asking your local GP
  • Enquiring at your local hospital for a community-based occupational therapist
  • Finding a private occupational therapist through the Occupational Therapy Australia website: https://www.otaus.com.au/find-an-ot 

Further information 

For further information on occupational therapy please view the Occupational Therapy Australia Website: https://www.otaus.com.au/about/about-ot