What is the difference between a physiotherapist, osteopath and chiropractor?

It can be difficult to determine the differences between physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths. They each seem to use some form of manipulation of the body to bring healing. However, there are some differences that you need to be aware of before choosing the right one for medical treatment. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between these three medical practitioners, and look at the specific medical issues they work on, the therapies they use, and how to determine which practitioner to see. 


Physiotherapists, also known as physical therapists, are licensed medical professionals who are required to take several years of study before being licensed. Their studies include maths, sciences, PE, English language, and more. 

In order to practice physiotherapy in the UK, a person must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), which requires all applicants to have earned their licenses. 

With physiotherapy, the goal is to help the patient to develop pain-free movement and help the patient to rehabilitate after an injury or post-surgery. To accomplish this, physiotherapists focus on body mechanics and how the body functions as a whole. 

Treatments include exercises, stretches and assessments of movement to help patients gain increased mobility. Physiotherapists may also use heat, ice/heat, TENS, ultrasound, and other therapies to help their patients. Therapies are usually drug-free, though a physical therapist may use products to help numb pain (such as BioFreeze or similar products). 

Physiotherapists may work in the same healthcare facility with other medical professionals, or they may have their own office, while some even visit your home or workplace, too. They usually work in conjunction with other medical professionals including MDs, osteopaths and chiropractors. 

They treat many types of patients including those who have had a stroke, arthritis, a job-related injury, sports injuries, senior patients who have mobility issues, and more. Physiotherapists work with people of all ages including children and senior adults. 


Chiropractors are trained medical professionals who are able to diagnose, treat, manage and offer preventive treatments for the musculoskeletal system (this means the bones, joints and muscles) of the human body. They tend to focus on neck and back pain, but they take a look at the entire body of their patient. In addition, a chiropractor will consider the patient’s emotional and social well-being, too. And they work with patients of all ages. 

Chiropractic is founded on the belief that adjustments to the spine can improve or heal many types of health issues. However, most people now visit Chiropractors for relief of musculoskeletal pain, and in particular the treatment of spinal pain. The goal of therapy is to find and correct misaligned spinal segments which may ease pain and also help to improve the health of the body more generally.

Chiropractors use safe, gentle manipulations of the joints (called adjustments) to the spine or limbs, which are fast. They may also use treatments that are similar to those used by physiotherapists including: 

  • Ice/heat
  • Massage 
  • Ultrasound
  • Acupuncture
  • Manipulation 
  • Lifestyle and/or advice on diet

Chiropractors are also trained to take and read x-rays, which can be an important tool to help them diagnose certain conditions. 

Chiropractic services are generally considered to be an alternative or complementary profession. While many people believe there’s no scientific evidence for the methods used, chiropractors do help many people. 

If you visit a chiropractor and they determine chiropractic will not help your condition, they will refer you to another medical professional for help. They want to make sure you receive the treatment needed to heal and bring relief to you condition. 


Osteopaths are medical professionals who treat a wide range of medical issues. They focus on the function and structure of the body, with principle that wellbeing derives on the skeleton, muscles, ligaments and connective tissues all working well together. These practitioners also work with diagnosing and treating other types of medical conditions such as digestive disorders, circulatory problems and many more. The overall goal is to restore normal function of the body. 

Osteopaths consider the entire body and take a medical history, check symptoms, and enquire into the patient’s lifestyle. This is part of the process they use to make an accurate diagnosis and determine the proper treatment to help the patient recover. 

When it comes to treatments, osteopaths use a wider variety of techniques to help the body heal itself. These may include: 

  • Soft tissue and muscle work
  • Joint articulation and manipulation
  • Stretches
  • Massage
  • And more

Osteopaths are not able to prescribe medications in the UK, and rely on physical manipulation, stretching and massage. However, they also make suggestions about a healthy diet and more. . 

If they determine that osteopathy is not the right field for your medical condition, an osteopath will refer you to another medical professional

These practitioners study almost as long as a medical doctor (MD), and often work in conjunction with general practitioners, nurses and midwives. Osteopathy is often a complementary therapy to medical treatments such as surgery, sports injuries and more. 

How to Choose the Right Practitioner

As we’ve seen, each of these practitioners is slightly different, but they do have overlapping areas, too. So, how do you know which one to choose? It might be helpful to see what each practitioner treats. 

Physiotherapists: works with the patient to recover from surgery or injuries, helping them to become independent. They can help with pain management and strengthening. 

Chiropractors: are trained to take and read x-rays and their focus is on the spine and limbs, along with other areas that are not moving correctly. They do not prescribe medications but can use a variety of treatments to ease discomfort and help patients recover from injuries such as misaligned spines, migraines and other conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system.  

Osteopaths: are trained about as long as a medical doctor and can treat a wider variety of health issues. These practitioners are not able to prescribe medications but use a broad range of treatments to ease or heal many different health conditions including pain (back, migraines, and more), digestive and other health issues. 

Osteopaths, chiropractors and physiotherapists are all trained professionals who look for the best way to help their patients. While they do sometimes overlap in their treatments, each one has their own specialty, and are considered partners with those in the field of traditional medicine.