To the average person, an osteopath, a physiotherapist, and a chiropractor may seem like more or less the same job. All deal with musculoskeletal pain, require a university degree, and certification from an accredited course.
But while they may seem similar at a glance, the three professions take very different approaches to health, so it is important to understand what sets each one apart from the others before deciding which of these professionals is best for you.
Probably the most well-known of the three job titles, it is worth starting off by drawing a distinction between a physiotherapist and the similar-but-distinct title of physical therapist. While both can be legitimate careers, it is important to know that only physiotherapists require a university degree, while physical therapists receive a narrower range of training over a shorter period of time.
In comparison to osteopaths and chiropractors, one of the primary distinctions of physiotherapy is its use of an all-encompassing approach that looks beyond the purely physical elements of an issue, also taking both psychological and social factors into account when treating patients. This means that if a patient were to present themselves to a physiotherapist complaining of back pain, rather than simply identifying the problem area and treating the symptoms, a physiotherapist will attempt to identify why the problem manifested in the first place, and prevent it from recurring in the future. This means looking at the physical side of things, such as posture and movement patterns, as well as psychological aspects such as stress or anxiety, and social factors such as work habits and hobbies.
Of the three job titles, chiropractors are definitely the most commonly associated with back problems, although some claim it can help with issues such as asthma or sexual dysfunction. But at the same time, chiropractors are also among the most controversial in medical circles. The main feature of chiropractic treatment that sets it apart from physiotherapy and osteopathy is its focus on manipulation, which is when joints are pushed and pulled to their farthest possible range of motion. The belief is that physical pain can be resolved by getting a chiropractor to manually put everything “back in the right place”.
Chiropractors are somewhat controversial for a number of reasons. Firstly, their techniques are seen as unnecessarily risky, with chiropractors having some of the highest instances of adverse patient reactions. They are also looked down upon from a scientific perspective, with one of their main theories having no evidence to even support its existence. “Chiropractic subluxation” is claimed to cause organ problems by disrupting the nerves along the spine, but this has never been shown to actually exist, meaning their attempts to treat it for both back pain and organ problems is viewed by many as not only ineffective, but meaningless and irresponsible.
Osteopaths are quite similar to chiropractors in that they also place a lot of importance on manual manipulation, although they tend to be a lot more gentle. The prevailing theory of osteopathy is that the body is at its best when all of its tissues are moving how they are supposed to. Osteopaths therefore assess a patient’s health by feeling their tissues, and and attempt to stimulate movement where they believe it is lacking.
As osteopathic manipulation is so much more gentle than chiropractic manipulation, many see it as harmless, or even beneficial when combined with other medical treatment. However, some studies have shown osteopathy to be ineffective in achieving its claims, while others show evidence to support it. The general consensus is that while osteopathy may have science to back up some of its claims, other claims are simply not true, and further research is needed to separate fact from fiction.
Although these jobs may seem similar, and usually have similar goals, it is clear to see that there is a distinct difference between physiotherapists, chiropractors, and osteopaths. To the average person, these titles may appear interchangeable, but many people will make a different choice when presented with the facts. While there is a clear frontrunner from a scientific perspective, the key takeaway here should not be to learn the technical difference between these roles, but to realise the importance of researching medical professionals before seeing them. Only then can you make a truly informed decision.