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What’s The Difference Between A Chiropractor And A Physiotherapist?

What’s The Difference Between A Chiropractor And A Physiotherapist?
What's The Difference Between A Chiropractor And A Physiotherapist?

The Difference Between A Chiropractor And A Physiotherapist

What’s the difference between a chiropractor and a physiotherapist is a question I get asked by a lot of my patients. Between an osteopath, physiotherapist and a chiropractor there is a lot of confusion with regards to what each health professional does and which type of treatment may be most beneficial for the individual. In general if someone has a tooth problem they see a dentist, a heart problem a cardiologist yet if you have a back problem who do you see? Should you see a chiropractor or a physiotherapist?

The Stereotypical Physio

When considering the treatment approach of an osteopath a chiropractor and a physiotherapist there is a lot of variation in how all three practice but then there is a lot of variation within the physiotherapy profession itself regarding the practice methods of individual practitioners. To generalise a stereotypical belief around the what’s the difference between a chiropractor and a physiotherapist for example is that the use of soft tissue therapies are generally associated with physiotherapy, chiropractors prefer to treat primarily with spinal adjustments and an osteopath sit somewhere in between liking to think of themselves as having a more holistic approach to treatment.
As with most stereotypes they are exactly that a stereotype, often a generalization that frequently offends. I think this particular stereotype offends many chiropractors, osteopaths and physiotherapists alike, chiropractors are also trained to use soft tissue techniques just as physiotherapists are trained in chiropractic adjustments (what we term manipulation), and I am almost positive no osteopath wishes to be pigeonholed in between the two of our bickering professions.

No Two Physiotherapists Are The Same

What this generalisation fails to address is that every individual and every individual complaint needs to be treated differently and just as no two physiotherapists are the same, no two physiotherapy sessions carried out by the one practitioner are exactly the same despite patients potentially having very similar complaints. All three professions are in the business of musculoskeletal care and skillfully assess, diagnose, treat and work to relieve and prevent any mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, each individual practitioner within each individual profession carry a similar yet different skill set with them and take this into every patient session they manage.

Why Can’t A Chiro Treat A Muscular Issue Or A Physio A Joint Issue?

Having previously worked with both osteopaths and chiropractors over a number of years, I have often had discussions with them regarding common clients who choose to see myself for their knee pain, the chiro for their neck complaint and then the osteopath for their pelvis issue. I think individually we all like to think we could have seen that particular patient for all three of their complaints but this highlights the belief within the general public regarding the feelings around who does what.
Likewise countless times I have had patients at the end of a session with me question as to if I was a chiropractor because I included some manipulation techniques similar to what they had previously experienced before at a chiropractic consultation. Typically I would just reply “No, I am a physio who uses manipulative techniques when I feel they are warranted and will be beneficial” which almost always leads to them asking the obvious question “what’s the difference between a chiropractor and a physiotherapist?” A question I seem to poorly fumble my way around answering, most likely leaving them no clearer on the topic, but this is because there isn’t exactly a clear cut answer (at least not that I’m aware of).

Not A Physiotherapists Place To Comment On What A Chiropractor Or Osteopath Does Or Doesn’t Do?

It is not my place to comment on what chiropractors or osteopaths may or may not do, just as it isn’t my place to generalise and comment on what other treatment modalities and techniques another physiotherapist may use. Each individual practitioner has their own style of practice that works for them, methods that over the years they may have found achieves them the best result. What’s the difference between a chiropractor and a physiotherapist? Well all three professions have highly trained and skilled practitioners and require continual professional development to maintain their annual practicing registration certificate and are governed by and required to practice under the same laws and high standards of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).

Myth: Physiotherapists Only Treat Locally

From a physiotherapy stand point some chiropractors and osteopaths tend to consider us to focus more on the local area of injury only treating the site of the complaint or injury. This is not the case, any complaint seen by a physiotherapist should receive a full assessment, examining all related areas and the biomechanics of how their body moves to determine what the injury is, why the injury occurred, what needs to be done to settle the complaint and then what strategies need to be put in place to correct and prevent any recurrence.
Physiotherapists are trained to always look at other causative factors for any complaint such any appropriate sporting or activity technique, including active and stationary postures, neuromuscular control and so forth, we are trained to address these areas so to prevent recurrence of injury or prevent an injury from occurring in the first instance. Any physiotherapy treatment session will be reflective of the assessment findings, their clinical reasoning and how the physiotherapist has prioritised their assessment findings and may include treatment to local areas, referral areas, and any causative factors deemed relevant.

Physiotherapists Encourage Independence And Self Management

Personally speaking (from my experience only) I think one of the distinguishing factors regarding the question “what’s the difference between a chiropractor and a physiotherapist?” is a large part of physiotherapy treatment, is focused on getting the patient actively involved in their treatment, encouraging the patient to become independent. Patient self empowerment over their complaint in both managing the complaint and preventing recurrence features very heavily in a physiotherapists mindset. From a business point of view it doesn’t really make sense but physiotherapists are schooled to want to get you better, better so you don’t have to keep coming back week after week or month after month, for forever and a day and although practice styles may vary between individual physiotherapists the big focus is always on achieving self management and patient independence so that in the future there is not a continuing reliance on the therapist.

Physiotherapy Is Aligned Closely With The Medical Fraternity

Physiotherapists place enormous emphasis on evidence based practice and are more closely associated with the medical fraternity than either chiropractors or osteopaths are.
When selecting your practitioner or your chosen provider of musculoskeletal therapy it is best to talk to that specific health professional and see if you are comfortable with them and their treatment style. It is only normal patients will have preferences and beliefs toward one approach or another, and through personal experience or exposure may have found that particular conditions respond more favorably to one method of approach than another. In answer to the question “what’s the difference between a chiropractor and a physiotherapist?” it is true we do all treat similar conditions and though our methods do vary quite a lot from one profession to another, methods also vary just the same with in the profession between practitioners of the same field. What is important to remember is you needn’t fear we may be upset or insulted if you change practitioner or profession, it is any patients right to have total control over the selecting of their chosen health professional and I am sure I am not speaking for myself alone when I say “all we really want is for you to achieve the goals you had in mind when you approached us for help.”

Disclaimer: This information on What’s The Difference Between A Chiropractor And A Physiotherapist is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice or be taken as fact. It is an impression taken over years of working in the industry and is one persons opinion only. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult directly with his or her chosen practitioner.

Hayden Latimer is the founder of and principle physiotherapist at Sydney Physio Clinic. Since graduating from Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand he’s gained wide experience practicing across the globe for over 15 years and is now extremely knowledgeable in helping people reduce discomfort and restore function and mobility.