What is the difference between an osteopath, a chiropractor and a physiotherapist?

Before I start, this is my very first blog post, spelling and grammar are not my strong points so I do apologise for any mistakes. I would also like to state that my views are my own and don’t reflect every osteopath or therapist. Please feel free to comment on any posts…

What is the difference between an Osteopath, a Chiropractor and a Physiotherapist?

This is a question we get asked a lot and unfortunately the answer isn’t a simple one! There is a lot of overlap between the three and sometime you can end up with two therapists from different professions being more similar than two from the same profession. Nightmare!

What is important is that people from all three professions are highly trained and registered with their respective governing bodies. If this is the case then, as a patient, it is important to get on well with your therapist, that you trust them and, most importantly of all, that they help you get better. Don’t get into a situation where you are paying for multiple session in advance and keep having to go back week after week for months because in my opinion that really shouldn’t be needed in most cases.

At Exe Valley Osteopathy our attitude is simple: if we aren’t making the progress you want or we expect then we are honest about that and look at other avenues to help you get better. That could be trying a different approach, a different therapy or referring you to your G.P. This doesn’t happen often but we appreciate our limitations and that we cannot help everyone.

Anyway, back to the differences…Table 1 shows this in greater depth but very broadly speaking osteopaths look at the body as a whole and not just at the area of pain. Chiropractors may look for links between the point of pain and the spine. Physiotherapy is difficult because NHS physios and private physios tend to be fairly different due to the constraints on time and finances within the NHS. My experience with Fiona Gerity, a physio in Tiverton, is that she treats fairly similarly to myself, where-as an NHS physio (very generally speaking) may give more exercises and do less hands-on treatment.

I like to think that osteopaths strike a good balance between hands-on treatment and good self-help advice to keep the treatment effects going.

My own approach is to start with a case history and detailed assessment to highlight the source and cause of pain. I like to try to give patients a good understanding of the issue as I feel this helps speed up recovery. Not everyone is as interested as others so feel free to tell me to get on with it. I prioritise the area local to the pain and work out to any contributing factors. The exact techniques I use are tailored to each individual patient but I normally use a combination of manipulations and mobilisations to improve joint mobility (which, in my opinion, should not be painful), and soft tissue and muscle energy techniques to improve muscle tone (this can be a little tender). I will discuss more about my approach and different theories in another blog post.

I have to say at this stage that with my work at Tiverton RFC and Heathcoat CC I am often called a ‘physio’ by the players as traditionally physiotherapists work closer with sports teams. This is something that is changing with more and more osteopaths being involved within sports teams. For example, Carl Todd has been working with the England football team for over 10 years. This work is often behind the scenes and as a result does not get a lot of publicity.

I once asked a tutor of mine why he let people call him a ‘physio’ at his local rugby club as I felt this was not doing the osteopathic profession any good. I now understand that whether you are a physiotherapist, first aider, masseuse or osteopath you will get called a ‘physio’ if you deal with the injuries at a sports club. I would prefer people call me an ‘osteo’ but all in good time.

Within each profession there are different schools of thought on treatment. For example, within osteopathy there is structural, cranial, visceral and classical to name but a few and many osteopaths will use a combination of approaches to treat based on the individual in front of them.

This means that if you’ve had a bad experience with a profession before, don’t rule out seeing someone else from the same profession with a different approach but it’s well worth discussing this with your practitioner before you have treatment.

I think that the main reason for the professions becoming more similar is down a more evidence-based approach and so the professions are more up-to-date on current research than perhaps they once were. I prefer the term evidence informed approach as, for me, this incorporates my own experiences, my osteopathic principles as well as research.

In summary:

Osteopathy, chiropractic and physiotherapy are three different professions with a common aim and some cross-over in techniques and approaches. As an osteopath, I like the balance and diversity within the profession but its important to realise that all three professions, as well as many others such as acupuncture, massage therapy and podiatry can compliment each other very well and that sometimes a multi-disciplinary approach is the most effective.

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Hope you've enjoyed reading and please feel free to comment on anything in the articel. If you have anything else you would like me to write about then let us know...


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