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Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapy: How Do They Differ?

Pain can be annoying— especially those that result from a sports injury, post-surgery, or simply because of old age.

If you’re having pain that limits your ability to do your normal work and recreational activities, then consulting with your healthcare provider is your best move. And after careful checkups, your doctor will often recommend you to do physical therapy. Or was it physiotherapy?

A quick and simple online search of either ‘physical therapy’ or ‘physiotherapy’ will give you mixed results of both terms. No wonder why patients are often confused by these two terms.

So, to finally end the confusion, this feature answers the following question: what’s the difference between physical therapy and physiotherapy? So, keep on reading if you want to know more.

Physiotherapy and Physical Therapy: Different Names For Different Countries

Is physical therapy different compared to physiotherapy?

Well, that depends on the situation and who you ask. In general, the difference is just on regional terminology.

If you’re in the United States (U.S.), your primary physician will likely advise you to see a ‘physical therapist.’ But in other parts of the world such as Europe, Ireland, Canada, and Australia, the term ‘physiotherapy’ is mostly used. For the most part, though, both words are used interchangeably in most healthcare settings.

But is that really just it?

People often use the terms as synonyms. In most cases, it ends up being just fine and doesn’t cause that much fuss. That said, even though physical therapy and physiotherapy overlap in many aspects, there are several differences between them – starting with their definitions.

Defining Physiotherapy And Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is defined as medical care that aims in easing pain and helping a patient move, function, and live better.

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) details that a physical therapist is a licensed and trained healthcare professional with experience in:

  • Diagnosing physical problems;
  • Maintaining physical function;
  • Restoring mobility and physical function; and
  • Promoting proper function and physical activity.

Physical therapists mainly help in relieving pain, preventing or recovering from a sports injury, post-surgery or accident rehabilitation, and improving flexibility or movement. Physiotherapy, on the other hand, is defined as treating injury, disease, or deformity by physical methods such as joint manipulation, massage, and other techniques.

A physiotherapist helps patients who experience disability, illness, or injury through manual and hands-on therapy as well as advice and education. Experienced Vaughan physiotherapy professionals and from other locations also stress that physiotherapy uses the ‘whole person’ approach to treatment and wellbeing which means looking at a patient’s general health and lifestyle for tailor-fit care.

Altogether, physiotherapists and their treatments help patients stay independent in their lives and become active members of society as much as possible.

Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapy: The Difference In Approach

By now, you should have a general idea of the definition and basic differences between physical therapy and physiotherapy. To help you better understand, you’ll need to dive a little deeper into the difference in approach between physical therapy and physiotherapy.

Physical Therapy Is ‘Physical’

From its name, physical therapy is often, well, more physical.

In general, physical therapists use a variety of modalities and treatments to help their patients recover after an injury.

However, compared to other rehabilitation professionals, physical therapists are more likely to use exercise as the main form of treatment and pain relief. This is because exercise is believed to help patients feel and move better. After an injury, the right exercises with the right intensity and frequency in the right direction can help patients recover fully.

Physical therapists educate and help their patients in doing exercises that can strengthen their muscles and improve balance and coordination to ultimately help them recover.

Other than regular physical exercise, physical therapists can also use the following therapy approach methods to treat their patients:

  • Weight Training

Weight training is a form of exercise that mainly helps with osteoporosis. It helps in the increase of bone density that can reduce the chance of a fracture if a patient falls. It also helps increase muscle strength, which helps improve coordination and balance.

  • Hot and Cold Therapy

Hot and cold therapy is a physical therapy treatment that uses alternating cold (nitrogen in ice, aerosols or cold packs and cryogenics) and hot (diathermy, hot packs, and infrared heat) treatment to ease acute and chronic conditions.

  • Electrical Stimulation

Electrical stimulation is a primary approach used in physiotherapy. Nonetheless, some physical therapists in the U.S. also use this treatment but are less prevalent. This treatment refers to placing electrodes on the skin near the source of the pain. Signals are sent through the nerve fibers to reduce or block the pain signals traveling to the brain.

  • Aquatic Therapy

Getting more popular in physical therapy rehabilitation centers, aquatic therapy is practiced in a body of water such as a pool. Pool water is often heated to help ease pain and relax the muscles. This physical therapy approach is primarily aimed at patients who have difficulty exercising on land because of the weight-bearing pain that prohibits the development and healing of functional muscle.

Physiotherapy Relies On Stimulation

Like physical therapy, physiotherapy also uses exercise. Nevertheless, physiotherapists are more likely to employ manual, hands-on stimulation approaches like massages and stretches. They use their hands to mobilize, manipulate and massage body tissues to help relieve stiffness and pain, improve movement and blood circulation and promote overall relaxation.

Unlike physical therapy, most physiotherapists around the world also use electrical stimulation that helps their patients reduce pain and improve their blood flow.

In addition, physiotherapists may also practice acupuncture, in which thin, small needles are placed into the body for nerve stimulation. Meanwhile, physical therapists use a closely similar technique known as dry needling. It refers to inserting needles into muscle knots, causing tiny twitches in the muscles and relieving muscle tension.

Other holistic and manual techniques that physiotherapy uses include:

  • Soft Tissue Mobilization Techniques

Soft tissue mobilization techniques such as myofascial release and stretching serve a similar purpose to a massage. These techniques help in relaxing a patient’s muscles and reducing the swelling in certain areas. Plus, they also help in proper blood circulation and reduce swelling of tissue around inflamed joints.

  • Joint Manipulation and Mobilization

Treatments like joint manipulation and mobilization refer to the gliding of joints to improve joint function and motion as well as managing and controlling pain.

  • Physiotherapy Instrument Mobilization

Physiotherapy instrument mobilization is an innovative concept that uses the assistance of instruments in medical care. It involves mobilizing the spinal and peripheral joints through a mechanical spring-loaded instrument according to the principles of physiotherapy.

  • Muscle Energy Techniques

Muscle energy techniques (METs) are a form of manual and advanced types of stretches that use the muscles’ own energy to relax them via reciprocal or autogenic inhibition and lengthen the muscle. Compared to regular stretching in which the physiotherapist does all the work, MET is an active approach in which the patient is the active participant to stretch the muscles properly.

  • Kinesiology Taping

Kinesiology taping means applying stretchy, thin, cotton-based therapeutic tape which can benefit a wide variety of inflammatory conditions and injuries.

Physiotherapists often use kinesiology tapings as a part of the overall treatment plan for injured patients but they can also be used to add extra support to weak zones. It is also used to help in re-training muscles that have gotten used to an unhealthy way of working or lost function.

Quick note

While there are key differences in treatment approaches between physical therapy and physiotherapy, in general, these treatments often overlap with each other. This means that a physical therapist can use general physiotherapy approaches and vice versa that can best help a patient’s healing and recovery.

Physiotherapist vs. Physical Therapist: Work Environment

Other than the approach, there’s also a significant difference between the working environment of a physical therapist and physiotherapist.

Most physiotherapy experts work in a hospital setting, helping hospitalized patients to heal and treat pain. Even so, they can also be working in private or public clinics affiliated with a large hospital system as well as on various rehabilitation or post-surgery facilities.

Meanwhile, physical therapists may also work in the hospital setting. Some physical therapists are also found in stand-alone outpatient clinics, nursing homes, schools, or rehabilitation centers.

That said, you’ll often see physical therapists practicing only in private clinics than in hospitals. Also, they oftentimes work with clients personally. In this setup, they go to their patient’s homes or work in gyms, private sports rehabilitation facilities, and other special treatment facilities to provide much-needed care.


And there you have it!

Oftentimes, there’s no clear-cut line in the physiotherapy vs. physical therapy debate. After all, both focus on managing pain, preventing an injury, and improving your flexibility and overall wellbeing. Nonetheless, based on the differences outlined above, you can decide what works best for you in your particular situation.

If you want to slowly re-train affected muscles and heal the body to gain mobility after surgery or injuries through physical effort and exercise, physical therapy is your best choice. On the other hand, if you need a more relaxed and hands-on approach with a focus on physical touch and stimulation techniques, you should try out physiotherapy.

That said, the most important thing you should do is choose a trusted and highly qualified practitioner and get a personal situation assessment to ensure the best treatment option for you.





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