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The Role of the Occupational Therapist in the Management of Rheumatic Disease

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The role of the Occupational Therapist (OT) is to assist a patient in developing and/or regaining skills important for independent functioning, health and well-being. The OT works with the patient to improve or maintain their ability to perform activities of daily living that are meaningful to that individual at home, at work, and in the community. They assist patients and their families in efforts to adapt to disruptions in lifestyle.

What Does the Occupational Therapist Do?

Assess and evaluate:


  • Physical function, including musculoskeletal system, joint function and limitations  
  • Cognitive and psychosocial factors affecting daily activities  
  • Performance of basic activities of daily living (e.g. dressing, bathing, and mobility) and community living skills (e.g. shopping, cooking, and transportation). 
  • Home, school, work and community environments to identify facilitators and barriers to daily function, roles and responsibilities;  
  • Needs for adapted equipment, splints, and ergonomic modifications.  


Treatment begins by developing an individualized plan to achieve prioritized goals.  Patients and families are educated on how to adapt their environment, modify tasks, and use equipment to promote independent function and help gain or maintain full participation in self-care, daily home tasks, work, school and leisure or play.  Therapy may include principles of energy conservation, joint protection, and stress management to minimize fatigue, reduce pain and improve safe performance in daily activities.  Splints and equipment may be provided to improve or maintain function, reduce joint inflammation, prevent contractures and decrease pain.  When function is reduced by loss of strength, endurance or joint motions, therapeutic exercises may be incorporated to counter these problems.  The OT may also assist in identifying personal and community resources to maximize independence.  Other areas of involvement may include program planning, validation, and research.

Where Does an Occupational Therapist Work?

The OT provides care in a variety of settings, including hospitals, physicians’ offices, nursing homes, hospices, rehabilitation centers, home health agencies, schools, industrial clinics, outpatient clinics, and private practice and a growing number of non-traditional settings. A physician’s referral may be necessary to evaluate or treat a patient.  

What Kind of Training Does an Occupational Therapist Have?

A practicing OT must have completed training at an accredited educational program, which is at minimum a master’s degree level (as of 2007). All programs require a period of supervised clinical experience. After graduation, individuals must pass a national certification examination to become a registered Occupational Therapist. OTRs may also pursue advanced certifications in specialties such as hand therapy and environmental modifications, or pursue additional graduate education to assume roles in leadership and research. 

A Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) has completed an Associate’s degree from an accredited college, supervised clinical experience and passed the national certification examination.  The COTAs primary role is to carry out the treatment plan that was developed by the OTR.  Occupational therapists and Occupational Therapy Assistants are regulated in all states, with a number of states requiring licensure to practice. 


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Contact the Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals at 2200 Lake Boulevard NE, Atlanta, GA 30319 or (404) 633-3777 or

Updated April 2013 – ARHP Practice Committee

This patient fact sheet is provided for general education only. Individuals should consult a qualified health care provider for professional medical advice, diagnoses and treatment of a medical or health condition.

© 2013 American College of Rheumatology