There are enough differences between physical, occupational, and speech therapy that all three constitute their own specialties. And yet they all have one common component: they involve intense brain training. When you strip away all of the finer details and nuances of therapy jobs, they are really about helping the brain learn new ways to do things.
Nowhere is this more apparent than treating stroke patients. Strokes often do considerable damage to the brain in such a way that everything from speech to motor skills are interrupted. Physical, occupational, and speech therapists all have to work together to devise and execute a comprehensive therapy plan capable of helping a patient regain as much function as possible.
When a Stroke Happens
A stroke is a medical emergency in which blood flow to the brain is impaired. This generally occurs as the result of a blood clot. When a certain area of the brain is not receiving enough blood flow, it is also not getting enough oxygen. This causes brain cells to die fairly quickly. A loss of function is almost always a side effect of stroke.
Strokes can affect any area of the brain. More often than not, lost function relates to things like motor skills and speech. Patients can sometimes be left entirely without function in the limbs, other times the loss of function is only temporary. Unfortunately, some stroke victims are probably paralyzed.
It is the job of therapists to help restore as much function as possible. And where certain functions cannot be restored, to teach patients workarounds. The amazing thing about it is that the brain is capable of learning. It is capable of building new pathways for signals that would otherwise have been sent to the damaged portions of the brain.
The main thrust of physical therapy is to restore physical function. You may have one stroke victim who has to learn to walk again. Through a variety of training exercises, therapy teaches the brain how to start moving the legs again. It teaches the brain how to accommodate a new way of maintaining balance.
A physical therapist might be working with just a single limb. He/she might be dealing with one side of the patient’s body, or both legs as opposed to just one. It really depends on the individual patient and the damage done by the stroke. Both the employed and locum tenens therapist have to adapt.
The main thrust of occupational therapy is to help patients develop new ways of addressing their ‘occupations’. This does not necessarily mean their jobs, though it could. It means anything patients normally occupy themselves with. It could be employment, a hobby, or basic housework.
Oftentimes occupational therapy has to coincide with physical therapy, just in case there are any functional limits the therapist has to pay attention to. This is why therapists have to work together. Treatment plans must be complementary as well as mutually beneficial.
The main thrust of speech therapy is communication. For the stroke patient, having thoughts in the brain that cannot be vocalized is terribly frustrating. Speech therapists work hard to help patients overcome such limits so that they can once again communicate.
It takes a special kind of therapist to effectively administer speech therapy. The demands are different because he or she is dealing with something that is not necessarily tangible. Indeed, speech therapists often succeed in doing things that are considered nothing short of miraculous.
Physical, occupational, and speech therapy are really about retraining the brain. They are three disciplines that approach medicine in a quite different way.