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Osteopathy v Physiotherapy. What’s The Difference?

Osteopathy vs Physiotherapy. What’s the Difference?

As an osteopath I am regularly asked what the difference between osteopaths and physiotherapists is. To help clear up the confusion here goes some factual information on the similarities and differences of these two professions.

In the words of Mary Poppins let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start. Both professions came to into the medical world during the 19th century. Physicians Hippocrates and Galen were the inspiration to both osteopaths and physiotherapists who were practicing manual therapy and massage since 430BC.

Contrary to the stereotypes osteopathy is not just ‘cracking bones’ and physiotherapy is not just strapping ankles/knees!

Osteopathy is defined as ‘A system of complementary medicine involving the treatment of medical disorders through the manipulation and massage of the skeleton and musculature.’ Oxford Dictionary
Physiotherapy is defined as ‘The treatment of disease, injury, or deformity by physical methods such as massage, heat treatment, and exercise rather than by drugs or surgery.’ Oxford Dictionary

These definitions aren’t particularly helpful however given they sound remarkably similar!

Both professions have extensive training in anatomy, physiology, pathology and hands on techniques but there are differences with the two professions training. Physiotherapists in the UK generally train through the NHS and cover rotations in fields of the musculoskeletal, neurological and respiratory health. Osteopathic training  specialises  in musculoskeletal health, and they are well versed in the application of spinal and joint manipulation, a core part of their 4 year training. Osteopaths tend to work more with their hands. Physiotherapists are trained to use exercise and modalities such as ultrasound and electrotherapy. There are however several post graduate courses available to both professionals to train in these different treatment modalities.

If people who primarily focus on muscles sit at one end of a spectrum (i.e. massage therapists to relax or personal trainers to strengthen) and people who primarily focus on joints sit at the other (i.e. chiropractors), physiotherapists and osteopaths sit together in the middle.

Osteopaths have been lauded as holistic practitioners who look at the body as a whole, taking into account the interrelationship of the nervous system, muscular system and psychological aspect to a patient’s presentation. This is why at times an osteopath may be treating your diaphragm when you have low back pain or your ankle when you have hip pain. This holistic approach underpins all osteopathic treatments. Some osteopaths choose to specialise in craniosacral or visceral based assessment and treatment. These specialisms may render one osteopath as more appropriate for your care over another.

Both physiotherapists and osteopaths examine, diagnose, form management protocols and treat problems with your joints, bones, soft tissue, muscles and nerves by looking at the function of your body as a whole. Here at Beyond Health we champion a collaborative team approach to client care. It may be that we advise you to see both an osteopath and a physiotherapist at different times as that is what we believe would be the best combination to get you back to doing what you love as quickly and safely as possible.


Anna Wylie, osteopath and moveBeyond Instructor at Beyond Health