First-time, returning, and curious patients of CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) practitioners often ask what the differences between acupuncturists, physiotherapists, massage therapists, chiropractors, and osteopaths are. Before we begin differentiating them, it’s best to keep an open mind and accept that they share some common overlapping features and treatment modalities with each other. But in spite of these similarities, they also have their distinct characteristics that differentiate them.
Osteopaths. Osteopaths are practitioners of osteopathy. Osteopathy involves manipulation, stretching, moving and massage to both treat and prevent health problems. Osteopathy is aimed at making sure that your bones, muscles, ligaments, connective tissue and joints all work together harmoniously. Osteopathic treatment helps to increase range of motion, relieve pain and muscle tension, and improve nerve and blood supply to areas of the body. Commonly osteopaths help to relieve pain from your back (especially lower back), neck, shoulders, legs, and if you’re recovering from a hip surgery. Though they can also help with other things such as poor posture and to prevent the development of musculoskeletal issues later on in life.
Note: Osteopaths are different from osteopathic physicians. Osteopathic physicians are medical doctors licensed to perform physical manipulations and practice medicine.
Chiropractors. A chiropractor is specifically trained to diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases of your musculoskeletal system. Some musculoskeletal diseases also affect your nervous system (your nerves); they address those as well. They have a greater scope of conditions they target compared to osteopaths. They’re particularly good at handling neck and back (spine) pain, rehabilitation of injuries from sports and car accidents, arthritic pain, and sciatica. In addition to manual spinal manipulation, chiropractors also use other methods such as ultrasound, hot/cold therapy and showing their patients exercises they can perform at home to further support the healing process.
Massage Therapists. A massage therapist manipulates the body’s soft tissues which include muscles, ligaments, tendons, connective tissue and joints. Problems they address include pain and tension of the muscles and other soft tissues of the body. When it comes to massage therapy it’s important to make sure you find out what type of massage the practitioner specialises in because there are many different types such as deep tissue, relaxation, sports, and lymphatic massage. It’s also interesting to point out that you don’t need to suffer from a condition or have a specific complaint to go to a massage therapist. Massage therapy is great for prevention. People go to them simply to relax, ease tension, and improve circulation.
Physiotherapists. A physiotherapist is a professional who helps you on your road to recovery from an illness, injury or disability. They take a whole person approach which means that they also teach you to be independent and give advice on your lifestyle so you can adapt better to your condition. Physiotherapists utilise various techniques such as massage, vibration therapy, hydrotherapy and acupuncture or dry needling as well as giving you a rehabilitation treatment plan. Arguably, they may address the greatest number of medical conditions from the list of professions stated here. These include the following:
Respiratory conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.
Cardiovascular conditions like post-heart attack recovery and chronic heart disease.
Musculoskeletal and neuromuscular conditions like back pain, sports injuries, and arthritis.
Neurological conditions like stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.
Other areas such as incontinence, women’s health, cancer, palliative care.
Note: Some physiotherapists will argue that physiotherapy should not be categorised under CAM. For purposes of simplicity, we will clump them together here.
Acupuncturists. They practice acupuncture, a major component of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It involves the use of needles which are inserted into specific parts of your body called acupuncture points. The needles are used by an acupuncturist to stimulate meridians or energy channels. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the meridians are believed to be pathways for life-force energy to flow throughout the body. These pathways can become blocked causing health problems. While most people seek acupuncture treatment for pain relief, it is also used for a variety of other health complaints like nausea or vomiting, circulatory problems, gynecologic issues and respiratory conditions. Acupuncture is best known to relieve chronic pain coming from your shoulders, neck, back, and osteoarthritis of the knee joint. It’s also known to address headaches.
Tips for Choosing the Right Practitioner for You
List your symptoms and determine the predominant one. You may have a long list of symptoms you’re currently experiencing, but almost certainly, one will stand out above the rest.
Don’t immediately jump from one practitioner to another type of practitioner. Allow some time for the treatment to exert its effects first before trying out other forms of treatment. Have a little patience. Your body may be new to the treatment and may need some time to adapt and recover.
When choosing the right CAM practitioner to go to, it’s essential that you check out their credentials. They’re usually posted on the wall of the clinic or waiting area. You may be able to get some feedback from previous patients they’ve treated. If they have a website, you can also check out the reviews posted there.
In some cases you may benefit from treatment by more than one of these health practitioner simultaneously, especially if you’re recovering from a severe injury or illness. In this case you could visit an integrative clinic where various types of CAM practitioners are working alongside each other. If this is not an option, then your primary practitioner may be able to refer you to other CAM practitioners for a more comprehensive treatment approach.
We are very lucky. In this modern age, we have many helping hands and a wide variety of choices when seeking help for the pain or symptom we’re experiencing. Use this article to guide you to the most appropriate treatment for your situation.