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

difference between an osteopath, chiropractor and physiotherapist

No, it’s not a joke, but a question that thousands of potential patients ask every day. We all have suffered from back pain at some point, but what’s the difference between an osteopath, a chiropractor and a physiotherapist? We try to shed some light.

First, all three are regulated professions.

This means that anyone calling themselves an osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist has to be registered with the relevant professional body. In the UK, that’s the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC), the General Chiropractic Council (GCC) and the Health and Care Professions Council. They have to demonstrate that they have achieved certain qualifications and expertise before they can be included on the register.

This means that you can check their registrations with the relevant council, and make sure that they are licenced to practise. Both osteopathy and chiropractic are complementary or alternative medicines, the only two that operate under statutory regulation.

Osteopathy is based on the idea that your muscles, bones, and all the bits in between need to work smoothly together for you to feel well.

Treatment often involves massage, and is designed to move and stretch joints and muscles to improve the way they work. Probably the most common reason for consulting an osteopath is for back, neck and shoulder pain, although osteopathy is also effective for other skeletomuscular complaints.

Some osteopaths are prepared to treat other conditions, on the grounds that everything is connected. There is at present, however, very little robust evidence that osteopathy can help with anything other than joint or muscle pain.

difference between an osteopath, chiropractor and physiotherapist

Chiropractic is also a ‘manual therapy’ focusing on musculoskeletal disorders.

Chiropractors use their hands to diagnose and treat problems with muscles, bones and joints. They use a range of techniques but often focus on manipulation of the spine. Many will only provide treatment for back and neck problems. There is good evidence that chiropractic, along with other manual therapies, is effective against chronic or persistent lower back pain. Evidence of its effectiveness in treating other conditions is more limited, which is why many chiropractors prefer to concentrate on back problems.

Physiotherapy is not a complementary medicine, although some of the approaches used may appear similar.

Physiotherapists, also known as physical therapists, are not doctors. Any physiotherapist who qualified in the UK, however, holds an honours degree or equivalent in physiotherapy. Physiotherapists work to help restore movement and function after illness or injury, using physical approaches. They therefore work with a wide range of patients and conditions. These include back and neck pain, sports injuries, and recovery after stroke. They also extend to work with the cardiovascular system, for example, in someone who has had a heart attack, or with respiratory problems such as asthma and cystic fibrosis.

If you are in doubt as to which type of practitioner you need, it’s good to ask for advice. You can ask your GP, or you can also contact healthcare practitioners directly to describe your needs. Nobody minds a question, and it’s better than wasting your time and money going to the wrong person.

For extra guidance, you can always contact our team of experts to support you by choosing the right specialist that fits your needs.


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