Some patients think that chiropractors treat the bones and osteopaths treat the muscles and choose their practitioner based on this. In fact osteopaths and chiropractors treat the same things but have differing philosophies and employ different treatment approaches to achieve their aims. These differences have implications for prospective patients both in terms of finances and frequency of visits. The explanation I give to my patients is broadly based on two areas, the aims of the different treatment approaches and their practical implications.
In general, chiropractors look primarily at the spine, the position of the vertebrae and any misalignments, which they call ‘subluxations’. These subluxations cause bony pressure on nerves leading to problems not only in the surrounding muscles and tissues but also in other areas of the body. As these subluxations are usually the primary cause of the patient’s symptoms, treatment is directed at correcting the position of these subluxations using frequent joint manipulation. The practical implication for the patient is that treatment sessions are frequently of 10-15 minutes in length with the patient attending often two or three times a week for several weeks. A lot of chiropractors but by no means all insist on a course of 36 treatments, then once a month maintenance treatments. Patients are also often recommended to have x-rays and pay up front for a course of treatment so can be looking at paying out several hundreds of pounds on a first visit.
Although spinal misalignment can be significant, Osteopaths are more concerned with mobility or how the tissues are functioning rather than specific positional aberrations. There are a multitude of other techniques employed by osteopaths who address the surrounding tissues and peripheral joints and these usually take up the major part of the treatment sessions. Spinal or joint manipulation, if applied at all is only part of the treatment process and sometimes not necessary at all. There is an osteopathic maxim that states ‘find it, fix it and leave it alone’ which is in direct contrast to the regular short sharp visits to a chiropractor. In practice this means that visits to an osteopath are initially once a week with sessions lasting around 30-40 minutes. Every patient is different but on average 3-4 treatments is enough to get a significant change in presenting symptoms. Most osteopaths would expect an improvement by the 6th treatment, if not they would refer the patient to a more suitable practitioner such as their G.P. Maintenance treatments are often recommended, but not always and can vary from once a month to once every 6 months. X-rays are only recommended if there is a suspected pathology, not just to ascertain joint position.