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So what exactly is the difference between Chiropractic, Osteopathy, and Physiotherapy? This is a common question, which seems simple enough, but doesn’t come with a simple answer. To answer this question we wanted to explore a bit of the history, philosophy, and method of these three vastly different, yet very interconnected, fields. Firstly we want to explain that practitioners working in these fields have their own individual views about what is right with their discipline, and what is wrong with the others. It is difficult then for patients, with no prior knowledge, to know the difference and what is the best care treatment for them.

All of these disciplines are regulated health professions, and people working in these fields are all university trained and are required to be government registered in Australia. These three fields are all practiced as primary care health professions, meaning that members of the public can consult them without a medical referral. This is were a lot of the similarities end, and the differences become more apparent.

Chiropractors and Osteopaths similarly both generally work in private practice, or in education of their prospective fields. Physiotherapists, however, generally work in a hospital setting with in and/or out patients, or have ties to a hospitals outpatient program, although many also work in the private sector with their own practices.
Each of the professions developed independently of one another, for different reason, and have different methods. To answer the question ‘what is the difference?’ some consideration of the history, method, and philosophy of each method is required. This will be discussed in a three part blog series, beginning with history.


Chiropractic began in September of 1885 in Davenport, Iowa, when D. D. Palmer made a crude adjustment to the fourth dorsal vertebra of Mr. Harvey Lilard. Palmer had been working as a magnetic therapist at the time, when he noticed as Lilard bent down there was a visible misalignment in his spine. Lilard had injured his back 17 years prior, and had since with pain and struggled with his hearing. Using his extensive knowledge of anatomy and physiology, Palmer made the crude adjustment. The next time Lillard saw Palmer he reported that his hearing had vastly improved and his back pain was gone!

Palmer called his new discovery Chiropractic – from the greek ‘cheir’ meaning hand and ‘praktos’ meaning done. Over the years he developed the practice, methodology, and philosophy of chiropractic and in 1897 opened the Palmer School for Cure (now known as the Palmer College of Chiropractic). His son, B. J. Palmer, eventually took over the school in 1906 and rapidly expanded the development of Chiropractic in the community and beyond.
It is no secret that Chiropractic has been met with many hurdles throughout its developing years, with objections from many in the medical community. However it has flourished as a well respected profession with millions of people feeling the benefits of improved spinal health.


Osteopathy began in the early 1870s, founded by Alan Taylor Still, a physician and surgeon from Kirksville, Missouri. Still came to believe that if the body is not working harmoniously then full health could not be realised, and that the current medicine was little help. He used the term Osteopathy to refer to the study and treatment of the ‘osteon’ or bone, as the cause for the bodies instability.

In 1892 Still began the American School of Osteopathy (now known as the Kirkville College for Osteopathic Medicine), inviting both men and women to study Osteopathy. Following a split from from Still’s college, former colleague J. M. Littlejohn started his own school, the Chicago College of Osteopathy and expanded on his own beliefs of Osteopathy that differed from Still’s original theories. Littlejohn eventually moved back to his native England and brought his study of Osteopathy with him, thus expanding the profession to Europe and the rest of the world.


While Chiropractic and Osteopathy developed independently from the medical community and currently remains an alternative to modern medicine, Physiotherapy developed within it, arising in response to the need for recovery from surgery and other medical services. Physiotherapy began late in the 1800s, when orthopaedic surgeons began operating on children with disabilities. They would employ women trained in physical education and remedial exercise to help their patients recover. These treatments were later promoted and applied in response to the polio outbreak in the mid 1910’s and to the rehabilitation of injured soldiers. In the 1940’s physiotherapy treatment mostly consisted of exercise, traction and massage. Manipulation to the spine and extremity joints commenced in the 1950’s when Physiotherapists were a normal occurrence in most western hospitals. Later in this decade Physiotherapists started to move out of hospital based practice into orthopaedic clinics, health centers, rehabilitation centers and nursing homes. The progression of Physiotherapists into their own solo private practices started in Australia in the 1970’s. While Physiotherapists are regarded as primary care practitioners, much of their work comes from referral by medical doctors.

We hope you enjoyed Part 1 of this series, and that this has given you an insight into the differing histories of Chiropractic, Osteopathy, and Physiotherapy. In Part 2 we will be discussing the philosophy of the three techniques.