How to Understand Therapist Lingo

By Michelle Shaffer

When facing recovery of various degrees and circumstance the lingo can seem indecipherable. There are acronyms for every style of therapy. Terminology and jargon are used for speed and efficiency among therapists, doctors, nurses and caregivers. However, the more you know the better prepared you are to aide in your recovery process because understanding lends itself to motivation.

Knowing who you are seeing, an Occupational Therapist (OT), or Physical Therapist (PT), or Speech Pathologist (SLP) may help you set about the tasks necessary for a more efficient recovery. You should think of these specialized healthcare workers as personal training experts. Each knows how to optimize the use of equipment, adaptive skills and devices, dexterity and muscle work to return you to your prior level of ability or, in some cases, better ability.

While some overlap of the various therapy disciplines occurs here are some of the distinctive features of each. Occupational therapy is focused on daily living functionality. It is concerned with dexterity, flexibility, stamina and cognitive ability necessary for a person to dress, feed, toilet and cloth self. Physical therapy in a senior living environment concentrates on locomotion, posture, large or gross motor skills and fall prevention. Physical therapists are able to help a person maximize balance and muscle mass through practice, exercises and appliances should the ability to walk become impaired due to any number of circumstances. Speech pathology is distinctively involved with the swallow function, short term memory, problem solving/reasoning skills, communication and nutrition. These experienced therapists have an arsenal of exercises, training tools, adaptive equipment and cognitive re-enforcement or thinking process tasks to remediate a multitude of impairments. The patient’s safety and well-being are always the most important factor in any therapy program.

Each of the therapy programs comes with its own language. A complete glossary of terms can be found by searching the internet searching or in medical textbooks. But here are some key terms that may be unfamiliar to you.

Occupational therapy deals primarily with daily living skills and these are some common terms.

  • Adaptive Response is any action that is appropriate and successful in meeting some environmental demand.
  • Bilateral Coordination refers to the use of both sides of the body together in a coordinated fashion, indicating smooth communication between both cerebral hemispheres.
  • Dyspraxia is deficient motor planning that is often related to a decrease in sensory processing.
  • Proprioception refers to the perceived sensation from muscles and joints telling the brain when and how muscles are contracting, stretching, being pulled or compressed.
  • Vestibular refers to our sense of movement and the pull of gravity, related to our body.

Physical therapists are involved with rehabilitating your gait, ability and ease of standing and walking. Common terms for physical therapists include the following.

  • ADLs are activities of daily living.
  • Iontophoresis utilizes a patch with a cortisone solution that becomes electrically charged to drive negative ions from the solution into the tissues. This creates a localized anti-inflammatory effect.
  • Myofascial stretching relates to soft tissue mobilization techniques such as utilizing massage types of strokes to promote relaxation and focus stretching on individual muscles or groups of muscles.
  • Mechanical traction involves the utilization of mechanical apparatus to provide stretching to unload joints; the stretch can be either constant or intermittent.

Speech pathology covers not only language skills, but also cognitive processes, nutrition and swallowing. When listening to a speech pathologist it could be beneficial to know these terms.

  • Aphasia is total or partial loss of the ability to use or understand language.
  • Apraxia is an inability to execute a voluntary movement despite being able to demonstrate normal muscle function.
  • CVA refers to the cerebrovascular accident also known as a stroke.
  • Diadochokinesis is the rapid repetition of several different sounds in a row.
  • Dysarthria is a group of speech disorders caused by disturbances in the strength or coordination of the muscles of the speech mechanism.
  • Dysphagia is difficulty swallowing.
  • Open-set speech recognition refers to understanding speech without visual clues.

Author’s Note: All of the terminology in this article was sourced on the internet. Sites were identified with a glossary of terms and then shared. Here are the sites used:;;