The difference between a physiotherapist and an osteopath

June 24, 2016

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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Osteopathy and physiotherapy have plenty of similarities – they both work with people to improve mobility, reduce pain and improve your quality of life. But there are subtle differences between the two, and you should consider these both if you want to see a health professional, and also if you want to become one.

The job role

Osteopaths focus on patients who are experiencing pain or injury – these could include back pain, leg pain, sports injuries or work-related strains or tensions. Physiotherapists can work on injuries but also work with general health and wellbeing, especially of those with long term illnesses such as MS or recovering from a stroke.

Osteopaths use techniques called palpation and manipulation – this is gentle massaging and movement of muscles. Their treatment is approximately 90% hands on. Physiotherapists use a wider range of techniques including manipulation of joints but also electrotherapy, hydrotherapy and ultrasound. Only 60% of their work is hands on – the rest of the time they work to develop exercise programmes with their patients, and observe how they move by themselves so that they can correct it appropriately.

Osteopaths works to treat the body as a whole whereas physiotherapists monitor the improvement of specific muscle groups or parts of the body.

Qualifications and training

Osteopaths need to have an accredited osteopathy degree, which normally lasts between four and five years, and register with the General Osteopathic Council. Physiotherapists take a three or four-year undergraduate degree and register with the Health Professions Council. They can also choose to register with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.

Skills needed

Other than their specific qualifications, the skills needed to become and osteopath or a physiotherapist are very similar. In both cases, you need to be good at motivating and reassuring your patients and their relatives/carers. You need to be observant and able to spot abnormalities as well as improvements. You need to be knowledgeable about the musculoskeletal system and interested in the advancements in your field of medicine.

How do I decide which to train in?

If you are trying to decide whether to train as an osteopath or a physiotherapist, there are several questions you might want to ask yourself:

Do you want to treat the body holistically (osteopathy) or treat specific limbs or muscle groups (physiotherapy)?
Do you want your work to be very hands on (osteopathy) or do you want to observe how a patient moves by themselves (physiotherapy)?
Do you want to treat mainly injuries (osteopathy) or a range of different conditions (physiotherapy)?

To help you decide you may want to organise some work experience or medical shadowing with a health professional. Not only will a placement help you to make up your mind, but also strengthen your application to study the profession in the future!

What other roles are there?

In this branch of healthcare there are a couple of other roles you might like to consider:

Chiropractor – treats neuromuscular disorders through manipulation of the spine;
Occupational Therapist – identifies and treats problems patients have with everyday activities (i.e. shopping, getting dressed and going to work);
Exercise Physiologist – provides assistance to athletes or sports teams by helping them with fitness testing, metabolism, respiration and nutrition.



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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives, and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.