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What’s the difference between a chiropractor and an osteopath?

One common question we are asked time and time again does not relate to medical matters.  It usually starts by: “Can you tell me the difference between …” and at that stage we can usually finish the sentence: “…a chiropractor, an osteopath and a physiotherapist?”

We practitioners, have a tendency to forget that, if the answer to such a question is evident for us, this is not the case for members of the general public.  Here is what I usually say:

Although chiropractic and osteopathy have distinct professional identities and philosophies, they are both founded on the two pillars of science and vitalism.  Vitalism recognizes the patient’s own capacity for self-healing.  Both professions have a holistic approach to health, integrating body, mind and spirit and use a hands-on approach.  However, despite these basic similarities, there are some significant contrasts between and even within the two professions.   This results in very different styles of practitioners leading to situations where one chiropractor and one osteopath will practise in a very similar way and two chiropractors or two osteopaths may be practising very differently.

In any case, practice tends to concentrate on treating the patient’s condition and leaves philosophy some way behind.  Both professions treat similar conditions in a generally similar way and get similar results.  The success of any treatment is therefore dependent on a wide variety of factors such as the condition, the patient, the practitioner etc.  So, there is no simple answer to the “what’s the difference” question!

Physiotherapy emphasises the use of physical approaches to the prevention and treatment of disease and disability.  In the face of growing competition from chiropractic and osteopathy, some physiotherapists have taken a greater interest in the use of mobilization and manipulation.  As a result, there is now wider competition between the three professions with regard to the treatment of neuro-musculoskeletal conditions (a very long word referring to the aches and pains and disabilities caused by the dysfunction of the framework of the human body).

As a member of both the physiotherapy and the chiropractic professions I can only emphasize the importance of touch and physical contact between practitioner and patient. In addition, chiropractic and osteopathy are both wellness-orientated rather than sickness-orientated.  They are concerned with the patient rather than the illness.  My advice is, whatever professional you decide to consult for your aches and pains and/or your disability, make sure he uses a hands-on approach.


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