When you’re experiencing pain in your body and you’ve reached the point where you know you need professional help to fix the problem and get rid of your pain, how do you know if you should book in with a physiotherapist, an exercise physiologist, a chiropractor or an occupational therapist?
All four professions have a keen interest in the body and optimising its movement to help you live and move more comfortably - yet each profession takes a different approach to achieving this. Here’s the difference between the four professions, how each of them work, and how they can help you if you’re injured.
A physiotherapist is a highly skilled healthcare professional who plays a crucial role in helping you overcome pain and discomfort, recover from injuries, and enhance your overall mobility and quality of life. With extensive knowledge acquired through a comprehensive four-year Bachelor's degree and ongoing professional development, physiotherapists are constantly updated with the latest research and advancements in their field. Their expertise lies in understanding the intricacies of the human body, how it functions seamlessly to facilitate smooth and pain-free movement, identifying possible issues, and employing effective treatment strategies.
If you are experiencing pain due to an injury, developing new discomfort, or facing movement-related challenges caused by a condition or disorder, seeking the guidance of a physiotherapist should be your initial step. During your appointment, the physiotherapist will conduct a thorough assessment to determine the root cause of your symptoms and may refer you to imaging services like x-rays or ultrasounds if required. Based on the diagnosis, the physiotherapist will create a personalised treatment plan tailored to your specific problem, individual circumstances, and goals. This plan will be implemented immediately to ensure the best possible long-term results.
Your journey with the physiotherapist will typically involve periodic appointments, usually on a weekly basis or as prescribed by the treatment plan. As your symptoms and progress change, the treatment plan can be adjusted accordingly, ensuring you receive the most relevant and timely care. Physiotherapists employ various hands-on techniques such as soft tissue and joint mobilisation, massage, dry needling, and exercise rehabilitation programs to improve strength and movement. These may include exercise prescriptions, hydrotherapy, or clinical Pilates, depending on your unique needs.
One essential aspect of physiotherapy is education and advice, where the physiotherapist empowers you to make informed decisions for your body, taking into account your injury or condition, enabling you to take better care of your overall health.
While some people may promptly consult a physiotherapist for muscle, joint, or bone pain, it is important to note that their expertise extends far beyond these issues. Physiotherapists are skilled in effectively rehabilitating and improving function, reducing pain, and enhancing the quality of life for individuals with various medical conditions and diseases. These may include arthritis, osteoporosis, cancers, and neurological conditions like stroke or Parkinson's disease. Additionally, physiotherapists also assist those grappling with the natural effects of ageing, making it possible to maintain a higher level of independence and well-being.
Common conditions that physiotherapists help with include:
- Musculoskeletal injuries (sprains, strains, fractures)
- Back and neck pain
- Joint pain (shoulders, hips, knees, ankles)
- Sports injuries
- Post-surgical rehabilitation
- Neurological conditions (stroke, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis)
- Respiratory conditions (asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - COPD)
- Cardiovascular conditions (heart attack recovery, heart failure)
- Chronic pain syndromes
- Posture-related issues
- Balance and gait problems
- Pregnancy-related discomfort
- Work-related injuries (repetitive strain injuries, ergonomic assessments)
An exercise physiologist shares common goals with physiotherapists in providing exceptional patient care and achieving positive outcomes. However, they take a distinctive approach to their practice. Their four-year professional qualification emphasises exercise-based interventions, aligning with the "exercise is medicine" philosophy. Exercise physiologists specialise in helping patients manage a wide range of health issues, including pain related to injuries, disabilities, and various medical conditions such as diabetes, lung cancer, and Alzheimer's disease.
Contrary to the misconception that exercise should be avoided during injuries due to previous advice of excessive rest, exercise physiologists emphasise the overwhelming evidence supporting the value and benefits of exercise in rehabilitation and overall well-being. Post-injury, exercise has been scientifically proven to expedite recovery, reduce the risk of re-injury, and enhance survival rates. Additionally, it optimises the function of bones, joints, and muscles, promoting long-term health benefits, from improved mental well-being to a decreased risk of coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and more. For individuals experiencing challenging chronic pain, exercise has been found to reduce anxiety, depression, morbidity, and mortality while enhancing physical capacity, functionality, and independence.
When you consult an exercise physiologist, you can expect them to possess expert knowledge in effective, evidence-based approaches to support your rehabilitation or journey towards improved health using exercise and education. While they do not engage in formal diagnosis or medical imaging to assess the extent of injuries (this is typically provided by a physiotherapist), exercise physiologists place significant emphasis on teaching you how to modify your lifestyle and adopt behavioural changes to achieve long-term health goals. Their primary focus revolves around utilising exercise, education, and lifestyle modifications to enhance your overall well-being.
It's useful to know that exercise physiologists do not employ other rehabilitation techniques, such as hands-on manipulation, massage, or dry needling, which are typically used by physiotherapists. Instead, they specialise in leveraging the power of targeted exercise and education to support your health and recovery journey effectively.
Conditions commonly addressed by exercise physiologists include:
- Musculoskeletal injuries (sprains, strains, fractures)
- Chronic pain syndromes
- Cardiac rehabilitation (after heart attack or heart surgery)
- Pulmonary rehabilitation (chronic respiratory conditions)
- Diabetes management
- Obesity and weight management
- Neurological conditions (stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease)
- Cancer rehabilitation
- Arthritis and joint-related conditions
- Metabolic conditions (e.g., metabolic syndrome)
- Osteoporosis and bone health
- Mental health conditions (anxiety, depression)
A chiropractor is a highly skilled healthcare professional that specialises in hands-on care to diagnose and treat problems and conditions related to the bones, muscles, and joints of the spine. The spine plays a crucial role in overall body function, and left untreated, back pain can significantly impact a person's quality of life and their ability to perform everyday tasks. Chiropractors play a vital role in managing back problems and promoting healthy spine and joint function, enhancing mobility and reducing discomfort.
Beyond addressing back pain, chiropractors also focus on providing support when pain is present in other areas of the body, which may actually originate from spinal issues. They understand that the spine and nervous system are intricately connected and communicate within the body, and any disruptions can lead to various health concerns beyond localised pain.
During your appointment with a chiropractor, they will utilise a range of techniques to assess the condition of your spine and nervous system. This comprehensive evaluation helps them identify areas of joint mobility and pinpoint where hands-on manipulations, often accompanied by a characteristic "crack" sound, can be employed to make therapeutic adjustments, thereby restoring joint health and position. These adjustments are safe and tailored to each individual's needs, ensuring precise and effective care.
In addition to hands-on manipulations, chiropractors may prescribe exercises, stretches, mobilisations, and other therapies to complement the improvements made during the session. These exercises and therapies are aimed at enhancing the benefits of chiropractic care and supporting long-term recovery and overall well-being.
Chiropractors can help with:
- Back Pain Relief: Chiropractors are renowned for providing effective relief from acute and chronic back pain, addressing the root cause rather than just the symptoms.
- Neck Pain: Chiropractic care can alleviate neck discomfort and stiffness, often caused by poor posture or musculoskeletal imbalances.
- Headaches and Migraines: Chiropractors can offer relief from tension headaches and certain types of migraines through targeted adjustments and manual therapies.
- Joint Pain: Chiropractic adjustments can improve joint function and alleviate pain in various joints, such as shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.
- Sciatica: Chiropractors can help reduce the symptoms of sciatica, such as leg pain and numbness, by addressing nerve compression in the lower back.
- Sports Injuries: Chiropractors play a significant role in the recovery and rehabilitation of sports-related injuries, helping athletes regain optimal performance.
- Postural Issues: Chiropractic care can assist in correcting postural imbalances and improving overall posture, reducing strain on the spine and muscles.
- Whiplash: Chiropractors can provide effective care for whiplash injuries resulting from car accidents, promoting healing and pain relief.
- Pregnancy-Related Discomfort: Chiropractors offer safe and gentle care for pregnant individuals to alleviate back pain and improve pelvic alignment.
- Arthritis Management: Chiropractic adjustments and therapeutic interventions can help manage pain and improve joint function in individuals with arthritis.
- Muscle Strains and Sprains: Chiropractors can assist in the rehabilitation of muscle injuries, promoting healing and preventing further complications.
- Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI): Chiropractic care can be beneficial for individuals with RSI, offering relief and preventing recurrence.
- Scoliosis: Chiropractic interventions may help manage scoliosis symptoms and improve spinal curvature.
- Vertigo and Balance Issues: Chiropractors can address certain cases of vertigo and balance problems related to spinal misalignments.
- General Wellness: Regular chiropractic care can contribute to overall wellness, enhancing mobility, and promoting optimal nervous system function.
Occupational Therapist (OT)
An occupational therapist (OT) offers valuable support to individuals of all ages, helping them overcome the challenges they encounter in their daily lives, which are referred to as 'occupations.' Contrary to the term's name, OTs focus on enhancing your overall well-being and independence in various aspects of life, whether at home, work, school, while driving, cooking, or engaging in social activities. Their ultimate goal is to enable you to live your best life, irrespective of your circumstances, by providing personalised strategies to improve your abilities and maintain your health.
The benefits of occupational therapy are well-supported by strong evidence. OTs play a pivotal role in helping people regain control of their health and well-being, particularly those impacted by illness, injury, or impairment. Moreover, engaging in community activities and participating in social interactions has significant mental, emotional, and social benefits. As a result, occupational therapy has gained recognition for its vital role in improving health outcomes. To become an OT, professionals complete a four-year Bachelor's degree, ensuring they possess the necessary skills and knowledge to provide effective care.
Occupational therapists work with individuals facing challenges related to a wide range of conditions, spanning from physical impairments to learning disabilities and mental health illnesses. Their expertise covers diverse age groups, including children, adults, and seniors. For instance, someone who has undergone hip surgery may experience difficulty in movement, sitting comfortably, or navigating stairs. In such cases, an OT collaborates with the individual to find suitable solutions. These solutions may include teaching alternative ways of navigating stairs or providing in-home aids to ensure comfort and independence, enabling the person to continue living in their home with ease.
During an appointment with an OT, they conduct a thorough evaluation of your circumstances, conditions, needs, and personal goals. They also assess your environment, such as your home or workplace, to gain a comprehensive understanding of your situation. Based on these assessments, they create a customised treatment plan to help you achieve your goals. Additionally, OTs provide education to both patients and their caregivers or family members to ensure a holistic approach to your care.
A significant aspect of an OT's role involves helping individuals improve their fine motor skills, such as pinching movements, which are essential for critical daily self-care tasks like holding utensils or brushing teeth. This sets occupational therapy apart from physiotherapy and exercise physiology, which tend to have a greater focus on enhancing gross motor skills, like walking.
Working with an occupational therapist often involves establishing an ongoing relationship, with regular appointments determined by your treatment plan. This approach allows the OT to monitor your progress, make timely adjustments to your plan, and guide you through different stages of your journey. Think of your OT as your dedicated support person who listens to your concerns, identifies your needs, and helps you work towards your goals with compassion and expertise.
Common problems occupational therapists help with:
- Physical disabilities and impairments
- Learning disabilities and developmental delays
- Mental health conditions (anxiety, depression, etc.)
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Sensory processing difficulties
- Neurological conditions (stroke, traumatic brain injury)
- Age-related conditions affecting daily activities
- Cognitive impairments (memory, attention, problem-solving)
- Chronic pain and fatigue management
- Post-surgical rehabilitation
- Hand and upper extremity injuries
- Workplace ergonomics and injury prevention
- Adaptive equipment and assistive technology assessment
- Social and communication skills development
- Home modifications for accessibility and safety