Osteo vs. Chiro: What’s the Difference?

I surprised a girlfriend once by hugging her from behind and we both fell  ̶  kerthunk!  ̶  on my lower back, stretching my pelvic ligaments like chewing gum.  So began a long education in back care.

Over the years, I’ve seen about 10 chiropractors and osteopaths for many and varied issues, of which about 7 offered wonderful service.  Three were duds, due to personal ethos rather than poor technique: one driven by the dollar, one a pervert and another, arrogant beyond measure.

Here’s a snapshot of primary similarities between osteos and chiros:

  • In Australia, both do 5-year university degrees
  • And pay megabucks for them (full fee at one university is $80,000+!)
  • Both are government accredited
  • Both care for spinal & nervous system health

And  differences:

  • Overall, chiros pay primary attention to mechanical disorders of the spine, skull and pelvis, as well as attention to joints.
  • Overall, osteos do the same but also consider the impact of spinal issues on the health of other systems’ such as the organs, digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems.
  • Osteopaths have a stronger focus on soft tissue work (muscles & connective tissue).
  • Osteo techniques include: massage, stretching, pressure point palpitation, repetitive movements, mobilisation and manipulation/adjustments.
  • Chiro techniques include: manipulation/adjustments (some quick, some slow, some use  indirect or constant pressure) and massage. I’ve also had chiros use wedges under my hips to rebalance, drop-tables that jolt areas into place, pressure point palpitation, and a pressure gun that delivers a mini ‘punch’ to a target area on the spine.
  • Chiros are more likely to use x-rays in the diagnosis of conditions.

Having said all that …

Being multi-modality is big these days so you’ll found chiropractors with backgrounds in kinesiology and remedial massage and osteopaths using craniosacral techniques that feel more like Reiki.

Both therapies have been around since the late 1800s, though osteopaths like to note that Daniel David Palmer (D.D Palmer), the founder of chiropractics, studied briefly under osteopathy’s founder, Dr Andrew Taylor Still. The point is, they’ve both been at it a while.

Overall, I’ve found osteopaths to be more gentle, though I think my choice of younger therapists, who are reasonably fresh from university, cautious in confidence and using the latest techniques, has contributed to that. But I’ve also valued the greater life and technical experience of older chiropractors (aside from one who treated my body like a side of pork, leaving me bruised and battered for days!).

I can’t emphasise enough the importance of being diligent with recovery exercises and tending to the underlying causes of spinal disruption yourself: poor posture, workplace set-up, stress, regular exercise, good hydration and nutrition, you know the drill.  I also learned some very useful basic back care from Sarah Key, an Australian physiotherapist on a mission to demystify back-pain and encourage better self-management through her accessible books.

I used to laugh at my father ‘swimming’ on the bedroom floor each morning doing his back exercises, lifting opposite arm to leg, then rolling around on his back with knees to chest.  He staved off chronic disc issues with those exercises. As for me, my daily yoga practice has repaired my slight scoliosis and I’ve grown 1cm taller!

As yogis say, “you’re only as young as your spine”, and its health is in your hands.