What is the difference between osteopathy, physiotherapy and chiropractic?

Osteopathy, physiotherapy and chiropractic are 3 distinct healthcare professions which developed separately in the late 19th century. They have each evolved into different forms of physical therapy in the UK, regulated by their respective governing bodies (General Osteopathic Council for osteopaths, General Chiropractic Council for chiropractors, Health and Care Professions Council for physiotherapists). They all treat people for a similar range of complaints and there is a degree of overlap in the techniques employed by each profession. To add to the confusion, there are also differences in practise within each profession; you are unlikely to find any 2 osteopaths, chiropractors or physiotherapists who work in exactly the same way as one another.

Generally speaking, the differences tend to come down to the philosophies that underpin each profession and the reasoning behind the method of treatment chosen in each case. Osteopaths aim to work ‘holistically’, viewing your complaint in the context of your whole body and how it affects you as an individual. This often means that they will assess other areas as well as the main site of pain, with the intention being to identify the underlying reason that your symptoms developed so that they can work to prevent your complaint from returning. Osteopaths and physiotherapists are both classified as ‘Allied Health Professionals’ (AHPs) by NHS England, with osteopaths currently being the only AHP to be regulated by its own independent governing body. Osteopaths and chiropractors both use ‘joint manipulation’ more commonly than physiotherapists, with it being studied in depth as part of their undergraduate training (although many physiotherapists now choose to learn these techniques once they are in practise). Osteopaths are more likely to be concerned with the healthy function of your body than with its structure; you are unlikely to hear an osteopath refer to joints being ‘out of alignment’. Chiropractors are more likely than the other 2 professions to use instruments in their assessment and treatment, while physiotherapists are most likely to stress the importance of remedial exercises. Osteopaths tend to spend the most time providing hands-on treatment.

These commonly reported differences are all generalisations and will of course depend on the individual therapist that you choose to see. The most important thing is that you find a practitioner that you are comfortable with, who is able to explain their findings to you in a way that you understand, and who listens to your concerns and does their best to address them; whether your main priority is for short term pain relief, lifestyle advice, or treatment aimed at preventing recurrent symptoms.

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