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Physiotherapy Vs. Physical Therapy: What's The Difference And Which Do You Need?

by Caitlin Obara

If your physician has recommended physiotherapy to you as a treatment option, you may be wondering whether you just misheard their recommendation of "physical therapy" instead. After all, when researching physiotherapy — or the treatment of physical injuries through exercise, massage, movement, and manipulation — you'll often find that it sounds almost identical to the treatment protocols used in physical therapy. However, there are some key differences between physiotherapy and physical therapy that it's important to understand before beginning a treatment regimen. Learn more about these differences to determine which treatment program is right for you.

Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapy

The key differences between these two therapies often involve educational and licensing requirements, especially in other countries. In many English-speaking countries, including Australia and Ireland, physical therapists are required to complete only a minimal amount of higher education in order to pursue licensing. Physiotherapists, on the other hand, have a training regimen that's more similar to doctors, chiropractors, and other medical professionals; they receive special training in muscle function and are well-equipped to recommend exercises and other therapies that can assist patients with musculoskeletal disorders.

But in the U.S., where these terms are often used synonymously (even by doctors), physiotherapists tend to make greater use of hands-on therapy and manipulation than physical therapists; physical therapists, on the other hand, are more likely to recommend exercise as a treatment. In this respect, a physiotherapist is more comparable to an acupuncturist or chiropractor than they are to a physical therapist.

Physiotherapy is also divided into three broad categories: musculoskeletal physiotherapy, neurological physiotherapy, and cardiothoracic physiotherapy. The latter two approaches are used to assist patients who are recovering from stroke, heart attack, lung disease, or other neurological or heart-related issues that require more than just medication to treat.

Which Type of Therapy Can Benefit You the Most?

The decision whether to pursue physical therapy or physiotherapy is a highly individual one. If your doctor has recommended one or the other, you may want to probe a bit further to see what specific therapies are recommended. For example, if you've recently undergone knee replacement surgery, physical therapy can benefit you by working to strengthen the muscles around your new joint and keep it from popping out of place. On the other hand, if you're pursuing the management of chronic pain, physiotherapy (with its emphasis on manipulation and massage) may be better able to release the pain-killing endorphins that make you more comfortable during the times between treatments.

For more information, reach out to a physical therapist in your area.