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Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapy: What’s the Difference?


September 17, 2021

Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapy

You may have heard the terms physiotherapy and physical therapy used in close proximity to one another. Some people even believe them to be interchangeable terms for the same thing. While these two fields are very similar, key differences can make a large difference for a patient. Understanding these nuances can allow you to choose the best care for you and have informed discussions with your provider.

What Is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is a form of health care that is designed to ease pain, improve mobility, and enable a person’s body to function better in day-to-day life. The most common uses for physical therapy involve recovering from injuries or surgeries, though it can be used to manage any painful condition or simply improve things like balance.

The providers of physical therapy are physical therapists, who are trained and licensed medical professionals. They are experienced in diagnosing physical abnormalities, restoring physical function and mobility, maintaining physical functions, and promoting physical activity. In the United States, a physical therapist must have a doctor of physical therapy from an accredited education program and pass a state licensure exam.

What Is Physiotherapy?

Physiotherapy is defined as treating disease, injury, or deformity through physical methods like massage, joint manipulation, and other techniques outside of drugs or surgery. A physiotherapist helps people who have experienced injury, illness, or disability by providing exercise routines, manual therapy, education, and advice.

One key element of physiotherapy is that it takes a holistic approach to wellbeing and treatment, focusing on the whole person, including general lifestyle and health.

The goal of physiotherapy is to help individuals stay independent and active members of society as much as possible.

How They Differ

Both physical therapy and physiotherapy use movement and hands-on techniques to improve the body’s condition, but they differ primarily in their approach to doing this. In short, physiotherapy is focused on manual therapies, while physical treatment is more exercise-based. They are able to reach similar goals by using different forms of treatment.

Physiotherapy is also primarily used in different settings than physical therapy. Physiotherapy is often a hospital-based offering, showing up in post-operative care and other urgent situations. On the other hand, physical therapy is more often used for non-threatening injuries. A physical therapist will focus on assessing and treating problems like muscle aches, pains, strains, injuries, and chronic movement issues like arthritis.

Common Physical Therapy Techniques

The main technique used by physical therapists is physical exercise. Depending on the patient’s needs, they will design exercises to contract, relax, and increase mobility in injured or affected body parts. The goal of these exercises is usually to get back common movements that are painful or impossible to perform. Once they’ve gotten used to the exercises, patients can often perform them at home.

Physical therapists will sometimes use other methods or equipment in their treatment. Hot and cold therapies, like ice and cold packs or infrared heat, can be used to treat chronic conditions and alleviate pain. Ultrasound treatment is also common as it can use deep heat to reduce inflammation in an affected area.

TENS units are another common piece of equipment used by physical therapists treating both chronic and acute pain. With a TENS unit, electrodes are placed on the skin near the painful area. Signals are then sent through nerve fibers in order to block pain signals.

Common Physiotherapy Techniques

The majority of techniques used in physiotherapy are hands-on, designed to manipulate, mobilize, and massage the tissues in the body. This helps relieve pain and stiffness, improve blood circulation, and promote movement and relaxation. Some of these techniques include:

  • Massage to stimulate the soft tissues in the body
  • Soft tissue techniques like stretching and myofascial release
  • Joint mobilization and manipulation, which use the gliding of the joint to improve motion, function, and control
  • Physiotherapy instrument mobilization (PIM) uses handcrafted instruments
  • Minimal energy techniques (METs) which uses the muscle’s own energy to relax the muscles through autogenic or reciprocal inhibition and lengthening the muscle
  • Osteopathy, acupuncture, and kinesiology

Should I See a Physical Therapist or a Physiotherapist?

For most people, this question is often answered just by where you will be receiving treatment.

Physiotherapists most often work in the hospital, clinics, or rehabilitation and post-surgery facilities. You may be assigned a physiotherapist in these locations rather than seeking one out, and they will usually work with you for a short period of time. Physical therapists are usually in private clinics, gyms, or rehabilitation facilities. You usually see a physical therapist for longer periods of time.

If you are thinking of seeking out this type of care, most people will start with a physical therapist and move to physiotherapy if other techniques are needed. Because of the thin line between the practices, some physical therapists will also offer hands-on techniques more commonly associated with physiotherapy.

Ultimately, both treatment methods are incredibly effective and safe options for those experiencing pain.

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