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

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

I'm going to start this post by stating that we currently do not have a chiropractor or physiotherapist at our clinic in Bournemouth. Does this mean that this post is going to be completely biased in favour of the far superior osteopaths, absolutely not! ;-) In all seriousness though, I will keep this post as neutral as possible!


Let's start with the founding of each profession:

- Osteopathy was founded by Andrew Taylor Still, M.D. in America in the late 1800s. Still lost faith in traditional medicine and initially started his own studies into alternative routes by desecrating graves and dissecting the bodies. After this, he came to the conclusion that a lot of ailments could be treated by looking at the musculoskeletal system. He founded the first school of osteopathy, American School of Osteopathy in Missouri in 1892.

- The Canadian founder of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer, also opposed mainstream medicine. He believed the body's natural healing mechanisms were transferred via the nervous system and that when spinal vertebrae were misaligned or subluxed this would cause illness or dysfunction. He founded the Palmer School and Cure in Davenport in 1897.

- Physiotherapy can be dated back to as early as 1813, when Per Henrik Ling, “Father of Swedish Gymnastics” founded the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics for massage, manipulation and exercise. Physiotherapist, known as masseurs at the time, were actually a branch from the nursing profession.


Now let's talk about the approach of these types of practitioners:

- Osteopaths are primary healthcare practitioners, meaning they do not require a referral to treat as they diagnose patients themselves. Osteopaths tend to take a holistic approach, though in the early days of osteopathy, heavy focus was put on the blood supply, meaning that obtaining optimal circulation to an area would be a priority with treating. They tend to use more long-lever techniques, using distal interconnected structures to mobilise other areas, e.g. movement using the arm to cause movement through the back. Osteopaths will work on muscles, ligaments, joints and tendons to help restore normal structure and function. They may use soft-tissue work, mobilisations, manipulations and many other techniques.

- Chiropractors are also primary healthcare practitioners. One difference between osteopaths and chiropractors is that chiropractors are trained to perform x-rays, though not all choose to use them. Another difference is that chiropractors will tend to put more of a focus on the spine, compared to osteopaths. For this reason, you will find that chiropractors tend to use more manipulation techniques to correct issues in this area. The nervous system is largely made up of the spinal cord so chiropractors will use these manipulations to restore normal functionality of this system. Depending on who you see, they may also use techniques such as soft-tissue work and mobilisations.

- The approach of physiotherapists often tends to include exercise-based therapy, especially those based in the NHS. Physiotherapists in the NHS are secondary healthcare practitioners as they are usually given a diagnosis by the GP/specialist and then treat based on that diagnosis. Physiotherapists in private care usually formulate their own diagnose and treat based on that. Private physiotherapists will often use more hands on methods too, such as massage and mobilisations, though they typically will also use rehabilitation exercises in their practice.


Who should I see?

For most musculoskeletal conditions, any of these practitioners would be able to help, though it is always a good idea to look into what an individual's past continued professional development has been based on to see their expertise. Typically x-rays are not required for these problems but if you believe you may have a fracture or dislocation, then an osteopath or physiotherapist may wish for you to have one done elsewhere before being able to treat you. Luckily, the vast majority of the time this is not the case.

Not a fan of manipulation? Then chiropractors might not be for you. Though saying this, many of them do use an array of techniques so it's best to check first.

If cost is an issue, then physiotherapists are the only ones widely available on the NHS, though these appointments can be limited, spread out and take a while to come through in the first place. The cost of each type of professional privately is usually quite similar, though differences can be seen in the number of sessions needed to attend so make sure to ask questions on a person's experience treating your type of complaint.



How we work at SoCo Therapies:

We offer patients a free consultation before starting treatment with us. This gives them the option to discuss any questions with our practitioners and gives our practitioners the opportunity to work out who they would advise the person sees.

Very often we will use a multidisciplinary approach to make sure the patient gets what they need at the right time. Some patients may have an acute problem, only require 3 or 4 sessions with one practitioner then they're sorted. However, others may have more complex, chronic conditions that require initial relief (typically osteopathy or massage if only muscular), rehabilitation exercises (sports therapy - very similar to physio, but that's for another blog!) and then potentially maintenance treatments (massage or osteopathy). Again, these things are very individual and we can tell you at the start what we expect your treatment plan to look like and continually monitor that things are going in the right direction. We will also be honest with you, telling you if we cannot help and point you in the direction of someone who can, even if they are not part of the clinic.


If you would like to book a free consultation, why not give us a call on 01202 422000.

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