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Is Osteopath, Chiropractor or Physiotherapist the way to go for you?

03 August 2015

How to choose the right professional therapist for your care can be a daunting challenge. Here, Osteopath Eddie Clark outlines what to expect from the three main professions and how you can ensure you get great care from your therapist.

One of the most common questions we get as Osteopaths is what is the difference between what we do and what a Chiro or a Physio might do. So in order to help any person trying to choose the best option for them I’ve tried to put down my opinions as an Osteopath about the main differences between the three main musculoskeletal therapy traditions.

Whilst this question would generate pages and pages of vehement debate online in professional forums, I think from the position of a patient (or indeed any other medical professional) there are more similarities than differences.

Generally, you’ll present to the practice with a physical symptom or issue. You’ll share your story and medical history with your chosen practitioner and then they’ll do a series of tests and exams on your body before coming to a professional diagnosis about what’s going on. Next they will proceed with a variety of physical treatments on the body, which are aimed at remedying or rectifying the issues identified.

But the difference will be in the detail.

Traditionally, Physiotherapists chose a therapy regimen that had used a higher proportion of modalities like ultrasound, light or heat therapy and taping in their treatment plan. These days they have adopted more hands on approaches as well and patients might do exercises to aid in their recovery. They are often rehabilitation and exercise oriented. I sometimes find they can use quite painful hands on approaches more often.

With Chiropractors one might expect a shorter treatment time when compared with Physiotherapists or Osteopaths, but it is often cheaper. They use predominantly hands on techniques, especially focusing around manipulative or joint “popping”, techniques. They have been traditionally very spinally focused, often drawing conclusions about issues that indicate some level of spinal involvement.

Osteopathy on the other hand mostly uses longer session times and a variety of gentler hands on techniques. They use manipulation too, but on fewer patients than Chiropractors. And because an Osteopath spends a longer time with the patient, it can be more expensive. I’d like to think that Osteopaths consider more psychosocial considerations but that might be my bias coming through.

Osteopathy shares a similar origin with Chiropractic, both coming from the American mid-west during the mid 19th century so they are probably the most similar in approach. Physio by comparison developed in the aftermath of World War 1 as an offshoot of nursing.

It’s important to remember that my above descriptions are my own opinions formed over a decade or more of working in the industry. They are big generalisations. All three professions can vary from them and individual practitioners vary – significantly. I would also argue that the three professions are edging closer together; new therapies like dry needling have been adopted across professional divisions and there are a lot of innovative practitioners adopting good techniques from other professions and mixing them with their own professions techniques.

All professions will try to fix up the patients problems using what techniques they’ve found successful in the past. I can guarantee you that all three are doing their best to try to help people in a complex environment. Professional competence is taken very seriously and there are measures in pace to ensure individuals keep their level of training high and contemporary.

The difficulty for people needing help with pain is untangling this mess and finding the right approach that suits them. I’ve written this article to try and help you make the right choice when faced with this situation.

I think the biggest message I can relay to anyone trying to find help is that it’s not about which profession is right for you but what practitioner is right for you. Attributes that make a great professional practitioner are universal and you can identify them when meeting or talking to a therapist.

Great practitioners are those you can discuss your complaints without feeling rushed. They are attentive and sympathetic. You shouldn’t feel apprehensive about asking your therapist a question and you should always feel like you’ve been heard. You should understand their answers to your questions. They should speak in plain English to you and not hide behind professional jargon.

Great practitioners are those who outline what the problem is in detail and discuss the risks of a treatment before beginning. They can be flexible with treatment choices and will admit if they feel they’ve made and error. Above all, they always put your best interests first, especially when dealing with third parties like your employer or insurers. They may sometimes admit they cannot help you. You should always feel you have a say in your treatment and your relationship with your therapist is harmonious; because good results are the consequence of teamwork and a good therapist-patient relationship is tantamount to achieving this.

I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Please contact me through the clinic if you would like any more detail.

Dr Eddie Clark Osteopath