This is a hard question to answer without sounding biased, but one that is commonly asked. Both Osteopaths and Chiropractors are musculoskeletal specialist and both undergo 4 years of stringent training. However, it is important to realise that once we are all trained each practitioner takes their learning and develops their own style of treatment and care based on their interests, experiences and post graduate courses – so no two Osteopaths or Chiropractors will be the same and most certainly there will be a crossover between the two.
The basic difference between an Osteopath and a Chiropractor comes from the variation of their fundamental principles laid down by their founders – A.T. Still (Osteopathy) and D.D. Palmer (Chiropractor).
A.T.Still developed Osteopathic treatment based on the importance of the blood supply to healing. Our techniques reflect this with soft tissue/massage work being important to us to aid fluid exchange directly and articulation and manipulations to create movement, which indirectly allows better blood supply. For instance, if you injure your back badly the muscles spasm and prevent movement. This protects it from further injury, but also prevents it from healing, as a lack of movement inhibits a good blood supply to the problematic joint. An Osteopath will work on the soft tissues and articulate the joint to allow better movement, blood supply and faster more effective healing.
D.D.Palmer however, developed Chiropractic treatment based on the importance of the nerve supply and hence manipulations (spinal Adjustments) became the focus of their treatment. For instance in order to treat an injury of the elbow a spinal manipulation in the neck will be their choice of treatment to effect the nerve that supplies the elbow.
This division of principles is an over simplification. Certainly as Osteopaths we also consider the nerve supply to an area and can manipulate accordingly if felt suitable and there will be Chiropractors that also do some soft tissue work.
Both Osteopaths and Chiropractors believe that the body has its own self healing properties, sometimes it just needs a little help from us manual therapists.
On top of this Osteopaths are firm believers in treating the whole body, rather than just concentrating on the injury at hand. It is our role to find out where the problem is coming from and that may not be at the site of pain, as poor structure somewhere in one part of the the body may be affecting function elsewhere. For example, weakness in the gluteal (buttock) muscles could result in rotation through the hip, which in turn could cause stress and pain in the knee. If we only treated the knee and not educate our patient to strengthen the glutes, the function of the knee would not change. So as A.T.Still taught us – Structure governs Function.