Both chiropractors and osteopaths provide treatments for bone, joint and soft tissue problems. Conditions that may be treated by chiropractors and osteopaths include:
What is an osteopath?
Osteopaths treat and diagnose problems with your bones, soft tissue and muscles by looking at the function of your body as a whole.
Osteopaths use soft tissue massage and movement (concentrating on the soft tissues) to re-balance your body's structure in a way that enhances your blood flow and nerve function. This allows your body's natural healing process to be improved.
Only people registered with the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC) are allowed to call themselves osteopaths. You can find a registered osteopath near to where you live on the GOsC website (see Further Reading below).
What is a chiropractor?
Chiropractors look at the effect that your bones, soft tissue and muscles have on your nervous system, specifically the nerves that run within your spine.
Chiropractors use manipulation to adjust the position of your spine and joints in order to improve your nerve function and healing ability.
All chiropractors must be registered with the General Chiropractic Council (GCC). See the GCC link below to see if a chiropractor is registered and to find a chiropractor in your area.
What is the difference between an osteopath and chiropractor?
Chiropractors and osteopaths provide similar treatments but there are slight differences between the two types of treatment that may make one type of treatment more suitable for you than the other.
A chiropractor is mainly focused on the spine, joints and muscles, while an osteopath may also focus on the rest of the body, such as respiratory or digestive problems. Chiropractic treatment involves the manipulation of your bone alignment (usually your spine). Chiropractors often provide specific treatments (called adjustments) for localised areas in order to improve the position and function of an affected joint.
Osteopathy and chiropractic treatments
At your first appointment, the chiropractor or osteopath will assess your symptoms to determine if treatment is suitable and what treatments are likely to help.
Both osteopathy and chiropractic treatments:
- Increase the mobility of of the affected joints.
- Relieve muscle tension.
- Improve the blood supply to the affected area.
- Help the body to heal.
Treatment may include mobilisation, massage, manipulation and stretching the affected parts of the body. Treatment will also include advice on how you can adapt your liefestyle, including activity and exercise plans.
You may also be advised to have tests, such as X-rays or MRI scans, to help diagnose the problem. Sometimes these tests can be arranged by the osteopath or chiropractor. Otherwise you may be advised to see your GP to discuss which tests can be arranged.
What are the risks and side-effects of treatment?
Chiropractic and osteopathy treatment are generally very safe when performed by properly trained professionals. Treatment isn't usually painful but you may feel a bit of discomfort.
Mild side-effects such as stiffness and tiredness may occur but usually resolve within a few days. There is a risk of more serious problems, such as stroke, from spinal manipulation, but the risk is extremely small.
Speak with the chiropractor or osteopath about possible side-effects and risks. Also check with your GP if you're not sure whether the treatment is safe and appropriate for you.
Dr Sarah Jarvis, 30 September 2020.
In September 2020, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) updated its guidance on management of low back pain and sciatica. The new guidance has made significant changes to recommendations about prescribing medication but there has been no new guidance on osteopathy or chiropractic.
However, the guidance does continue to recommend that acupuncture should not be recommended or offered by doctors for managing low back pain with or without sciatica.
Does chiropractic or osteopathy treatment work?
Many people find chiropractic and osteopathy treatment for bone, joint and muscle problems very effective. However the treatments aren't always based on scientific evidence.
Some osteopaths claim to be able to treat conditions that aren't directly related to muscles, bones and joints. These conditions include migraines, painful periods, bowel disorders, depression and colic in babies. However there isn't enough evidence to support the claims that osteopathy can treat these problems.
How can you find a chiropractor or osteopath?
Chiropractic treatment and osteopathy are very rarely available on the NHS. Your GP or local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) will be able to tell you whether any osteopathy or chiropractic treatment is available in your area.
Most people pay for chiropractic or osteopathy treatment privately. You don't need to be referred by your GP to see a private chiropractor or osteopath. Some private health insurance schemes include cover for chiropractic or osteopathic treatment.
Although you don't need to see your GP before making an appointment to see a chiropractor or osteopath, it's best to speak with them for advice first. They can let you know about other treatments that might help, and can advise you if chiropractic or osteopathy treatment is suitable for you. If you're pregnant, make sure you seek advice from your GP or midwife before you see a chiropractor or osteopath.
Further reading and references
Low back pain and sciatica in over 16s: assessment and management; NICE Guidelines (November 2016 - last updated December 2020)