Osteopath vs Physiotherapist

Who out there knows the difference between Osteopathy and Physiotherapy?  This question comes up every once in a while, and we thought it would be an excellent subject to explain further.

What is Osteopathy?

The Canadian College of Osteopathy defines it as “A natural medicine which aims to restore function in the body by treating the causes of pain and imbalance.  To achieve this goal, the Osteopathic Manual Practitioner relies on the quality and finesse of their palpation (a diagnostic skill when examining, that the Osteopathic Manual Practitioner uses to feel or sense the state of the tissues) and works with the position, mobility and quality of the tissues.”

In simpler terms, an osteopath focuses on diagnosing, treating, preventing, and rehabilitating musculoskeletal disorders.  The term ‘musculoskeletal’ refers to one’s bones, muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments.  The goal of Osteopathy is to restore the body’s whole system to a state of balance, which is done by looking at structural and mechanical dysfunctions within the body.  Some benefits are pain relief, improved body function and, most importantly, protection against future illness and injury.

The 4 core principles of Osteopathy:

  • Interaction between structure and function
    • Only an utterly intact structure can function correctly.
  • The body is an organic unit
    • All structures and functions of the body are inseparably connected. Mind, Body & Spirit
  • The body contains self-regulating mechanisms
    • The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing and health maintenance.
  • Professionals base rational treatment on understanding the principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function.

The critical philosophy behind osteopathy is that the body functions as a unit and has an innate, natural ability to self-regulate and self-heal.

Osteopaths believe that your body’s ability to heal and maintain a proper state of health gets impaired due to physical imbalances and strains of structure (bones, muscles, fascia, tendons, and ligaments).  To ensure a balanced structure, an osteopath follows the above-noted principles.  Along with evaluating the area causing your issues, they will look at other contributing factors causing the symptoms.  These factors include environmental and lifestyle issues, family history, past traumas, etc.  When considering everything together, your osteopath will work to restore health and well-being to your body.

back pain trigger points
physio working on knee pain

What does Osteopathic treatment involve?

Osteopathic treatment focuses on the ‘whole body’ by increasing joint mobility, relieving muscle tension and enhancing the blood and nerve supply to tissues.  The concept is that the techniques used help the body’s healing mechanisms restore the full function of the body.  These techniques can include: soft tissue massage, joint manipulation, stretching, acupuncture and more.  Osteopaths will also advise you on health and exercises to promote correct posture.  This holistic approach aims to help your body find a balance with each treatment specifically tailored to a patient’s needs.

The purpose of osteopathy is to treat patients of all ages, from babies to seniors, and treatment gets tailored to athletes, pregnant women and much more.

What is the difference between Osteopathy and Physiotherapy?

Now that we better understand the area of Osteopathy, we look at how it compares to Physiotherapy.  There are more similarities than differences between the two professions, with both focused on musculoskeletal pain and hands-on treatments.  Also, osteopaths and physiotherapists involve themselves in extensive training in anatomy, physiology and pathology.

Philosophy Behind the Professions

Osteopaths work from the viewpoint that the ‘body is a whole’ and that all the body’s systems are interconnected, and it has a self-healing mechanism.  Conversely, physiotherapy is aligned more closely with traditional Western medicine, where the focus is more on the problem area identified with treatment specified to that area instead of the whole body.


The training for each profession also differs.  Osteopaths are trained for four years to use their hands, which includes over 2,000 hours of touch training.  This training helps osteopaths develop a high sense of palpation (a skill used during examination to sense or feel the state of the tissues or systems).  As mentioned, training focuses on musculoskeletal health, so osteopaths are well-versed in spinal and joint manipulation.  Osteopaths can also specialize in visceral, cranial, women’s health and pediatrics.

Physiotherapist training typically takes three years, and their rotations include musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular and respiratory training.

Compared to osteopaths, physiotherapist training is often less ‘hands-on.’  Physiotherapists learn to follow treatment protocols and provide rehabilitative exercise-based treatment.  This approach aims to help get patients back to full fitness and mobility after an injury.

Treatment Processes

While osteopathic treatment is 90% hands-on, most physiotherapists use a hands-on approach of about 60%.  Other techniques used can include observation of movement and electrotherapy.  Physiotherapy treatment tends to focus on mobilizing the site of injury instead of the ‘whole body’ approach of osteopathy.  Osteopaths typically emphasize exercise-based management, which they believe to be a vital step in recovery.

graph showing spine cord


Aside from their differences in the overall philosophy and treatment, osteopathy and physiotherapy aim to relieve pain and help one’s body work well.  It’s important to understand that no two practitioners will provide the same treatment.  Because of this, it is worth taking the time to research and potentially try different people so that you find a practitioner who works best for you and your needs.

Both professions are complementary to each other.  Osteopaths provide specific pain relief treatment, and physiotherapists provide excellent rehabilitation after injury or surgery.  If you ever find yourself suffering from an injury or chronic pain, seeing both alongside one another or at different stages of your rehab can be very beneficial.  Ideally, between the two, you’ll soon be living your life to the fullest, free of pain.

For any questions or advice related to Osteopathy or Physiotherapy, contact one of our trained physiotherapists today!