What’s the difference between a physio, chiro and osteo?

The doctor is diagnosing the patient's back pain. A male with back pain sees a doctor for treatment.
What’s the difference between a physio, chiro and osteo?

Who should you visit for a bad back, a sporting injury or neck pain? Here’s how a physio, chiro or osteo may be able to help.

The truth is, physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths can all play a role in supporting your health and wellbeing.

These practitioners overlap in the conditions they treat, the most common being musculoskeletal problems, sports and work injuries, back pain and headaches.

The main difference between them is in how they assess and treat the complaint. For example:

  • Physiotherapists focus on physical movement and function for patients, most commonly after injury or surgery. 
  • Chiropractors focus on diagnosing, treating and preventing musculoskeletal problems throughout the body.
  • Osteopaths focus on pinpointing what’s stopped working well within the body to cause mechanical overloading and pain in the area that’s sore.

Here we explore in more detail how each practitioner works.

What is a physiotherapist?

Physiotherapists are experts in exercise prescription and aim to maximise a person’s physical capacity through movement and pain management.

“Physiotherapists uniquely use ‘hands on’ techniques with exercise and lifestyle modification to assist people to function better,” says Darren Beales, a member of the Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) and the APA Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy Group.

Manual techniques include joint mobilisation and soft tissue techniques like massage and sometimes manipulation. Some practitioners use machines, such as a TENS unit, to help with healing or pain reduction.

The most common pain problems relate to back, neck and headaches. However, physios are also involved in other areas of practice.

“We’re involved in cardiac rehabilitation for heart problems and work with people with lung problems as well,” says Beales. “We’re involved in elderly and terminally ill care, and work in occupational areas to prevent and manage work related injuries.”

Physiotherapists also work with children across a multitude of childhood disorders, rehabilitate people after surgery and assist women during pregnancy and post birth. 

Common reasons for visiting a physiotherapist

  • Back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Knee arthritis
  • Headaches
  • Ankle injuries from sport
  • Chronic pain
  • Hip osteoarthritis
  • Dizziness
  • Pelvic floor dysfunction (for example, incontinence)

What is a chiropractor? 

Chiropractors are experts in caring for the spine and neuro-musculoskeletal system.

“There’s a common misconception that chiropractic care involves only spinal adjustment,” says Matthew Fisher, CEO of Chiropractic Association Australia. “But chiropractors use a patient centred, multi-modal model of care.”

Manual therapies used may include spinal adjustment, but also mobilisation, muscle and soft tissue techniques, electrotherapies, exercise prescription, rehabilitation, nutritional recommendations and lifestyle advice.

The primary reasons that Australians seek chiropractic care is for spine-related musculoskeletal disorders, back pain, headaches.

Other conditions include postural problems, sciatica, mid back and chest pain, various muscle and joint problems, tendonitis or bursitis, and sports injuries. 

Common reasons for visiting a chiropractor

  • Musculoskeletal disorders
  • Back pain
  • Headaches
  • Postural problems
  • Sciatica
  • Neck pain
  • Chest pain
  • Muscle and joint problems
  • Tendonitis
  • Sports injuries

What is an osteopath?

Osteopathy is a hands on manual therapy. It focuses on how the skeleton, joints, muscles, nerves, circulation, connective tissue and internal organs function as a whole.

“We’re interested in the global view of the body, regardless of the location of discomfort,” says Georgia Ellis, Osteopathy Australia board member. “We try to have a ‘big picture’ approach to diagnosis and management.”

Osteopaths treat conditions using techniques such as massage, myofascial release, stretching, joint manipulation and visceral manipulation. Some practitioners use dry needling.

“We’re all registered health professionals and mostly manual therapists,” says Ellis. “We can also suggest exercise and lifestyle modifications that will help benefit a patient.” 

Common reasons for visiting an osteopath

  • Lower back pain including sciatic pain, sacroiliac joint pain, coccyx pain
  • Neck pain
  • Cervicogenic headaches 
  • Stiffness related to osteoarthritis
  • Mobility issues at shoulders, knees, hips
  • Inflammatory conditions
  • Tendinitis and bursitis
  • Musculoskeletal complaints related to pregnancy
  • Work related injuries
  • Sports related injuries

So, which one should you choose?

If you’re not sure which health professional you should see, the best thing to do is talk to your GP.

They can assess your symptoms, recommend the next steps and give you more information about your options, including providing a referral if needed. 

Ultimately, in many cases the choice may be yours.

As a patient, the techniques used by these practitioners can feel similar. However, there will be differences in the philosophy in how they apply these techniques to treat patients specifically on that day, Ellis says. 

“As a patient, it may be beneficial to expose yourself to each type of practitioner,” she advises. “Only you will know which one suits you and your body best.”

Disclaimer:

This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.

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