The Importance of Occupational Therapy for Burn Patients

Occupational Therapy (OT) is defined as an allied health profession that aims to assist people achieve independence, meaning and satisfaction in all aspects of their lives after  injury, illness, disability or psychological dysfunction.

Rehabilitation after sustaining burn injuries requires the expertise of many health professionals.  The role of the OT’s will often be needed as part of a comprehensive rehabilitation program for burn survivors to provide treatment for hand therapy, splinting, self-care retraining, face and neck stretching, wound care, scar massage and functional improvement. These physical treatments are a very necessary component of a burn survivor’s recovery; however another essential role of an OT is to assist burn survivors return to the community after their accident.  This component of rehabilitation is more about addressing the psychosocial and psychological needs of the burn patient.  The OT provides a crucial role in helping burn survivors rebuild and redesign their lives to accommodate their injuries and deal with mental health issues via counselling and goal setting.

The devastating psychological effects suffered by burn survivors cannot be understated.  Finding the burn survivor’s internal strength to redesign their life is a critical role of the OT.  Self-esteem and self-image are often severely damaged in burn survivors.  Their previous roles in society, interests, friendships, routines etc. are all affected and rehabilitation is necessary to help them return to this life.

An important role of the OT in the burn survivor’s recovery is also to become an educator to help desensitize people who have previously had relationships and contact with the burn victim prior to their injury.  This is a heightened need when victims have sustained burns to their face or other publicy visible parts of the body such as hands/ears.  Responses can be difficult to deal with as people often struggle to hide the shock at seeing burn survivors new and changed physical appearance.

A burn survivor will often have to face people who are curious about their injuries and who may respond with stares or in an intrusive manner.  An OT plays a critical role here helping burn survivors prepare for and cope with such responses.  They can assist by introducing them to aids such as concealing cosmetics, permanent therapies for scarring, online and local support groups and also by helping them form a network with other burn survivors.

Assisting a burn survivor with re-entering society comprises many steps and processes.  It is also dependant on age, severity of injury and the degree to which they are willing and able to participate in the recovery process.  Friends/family and significant others all play an important role in the therapeutic process, especially when patients are unable to plan for themselves.  A home/workplace/school evaluation should be performed by the OT on an ongoing basis to assess the needs of not only the individual but also co-workers, students, teachers etc. to help with the rehabilitation process.  It is important to remember that burn survivors will encounter and form relationships with many different people throughout their lives, especially in the case of children.  The process of helping burn survivors cope with the reactions of new people in their lives and the subsequent psychosocial issues is an ongoing process that must adapt with the person’s environment.

The assistance of a good OT cannot be underestimated in the rehabilitation of a burn survivor.  They can help themselves and others remember that they are not just a “victim”, but that their role in society prior to their injuries may still be very important to them.  Regardless of whether they choose to return to that life or choose a different path, despite their injuries they still have purpose, strength, determination and a great deal to offer personally and professionally.