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What is the Difference Between an Osteopath and a Chiropractor?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Chiropractors and osteopaths are both medical professionals who treat patients with a focus on the musculoskeletal system, including the spine, joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The two professions are actually radically different, requiring different levels of certification and ultimately offering different services. There has also been some historical hostility between the two fields, which can make sorting out the differences rather challenging. Essentially, both offer valuable and useful services, and each can be included in a holistic healthcare regimen.

A chiropractor is a medical professional trained in chiropractic medicine, typically in a three to four year program. The student learns about anatomy, physiology, and biology, and focuses on the skeletal system. Chiropractic doctors believe that many health problems are related to imbalances in the musculoskeletal system, and they learn to perform small adjustments to this system while in school. Contrary to popular belief, these adjustments are not limited to the back. Chiropractics is a specialty, as opposed to osteopathy, which is more like a medical philosophy.

An osteopath, on the other hand, is much more like a physician, especially in the United States. Professionals in this field believe in treating the body as a whole, and include the muscoloskeletal system as an important structure in their practice, but they do not believe that a myriad of problems can be solved through adjustments. They focus on preventative medicine and caring for the musculoskeletal system to reduce problems, but they also offer other types of medical treatment. In the United States, they must be licensed physicians and are able to perform surgery, prescribe medicine, and offer other medical services depending on what field they have chosen to specialize in.

Both professions have trade organizations, such as the American Osteopathic Association, to oversee the activities of their members. An osteopath and a chiropractor must both take qualifying examinations before being admitted to practice, and they must participate in continuing education to be licensed through the region in which they practice. Both may also provide referrals to medical specialists in order to treat particular conditions.

As a general rule, an osteopath receives more education than a chiropractor, especially for some specialties. The first is a medical doctor with a focus on holistic health, whereas the second practices in a highly specialized and unique field. An osteopath can provide general care, including manipulations, while a chiropractor offers the specific service of adjustments and manipulations with the intent of improving health and reducing pain.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon347917 — On Sep 11, 2013

My son fell down icy stairs almost four years ago and it has become progressively worse to the point that it has been difficult for him to ride in a car or sit at his desk at school. He has been seeing a chiropractor for four weeks now (once a week) and he feels great. He will now go to a two week appointment and then a month, and after that he will call as needed.

He was also sent to a spine specialist by his primary care doctor, but nothing showed on the x-ray and they said they could do a bone scan but doubt that will show anything either. They suggested continuing with the chiropractor or doing physical therapy. We decided to stick with the chiropractor. We have never been to an Osteopath so I can only speak as far as a chiropractor.

By cmaellatim — On Apr 24, 2013

Sciatica can be one of the most painful, and persistent conditions. Chiropractic benefits pregnant women and helps children. A lot of people are unaware of the fact that chiropractic adjustments are extremely beneficial.

By anon311239 — On Dec 30, 2012

Chiropractors are not fully licensed physicians. They are not even considered physicians in many US states. No public university (state university) in the USA teaches chiropractic.

The only tool a chiropractor has is "popping" a joint. And the only honest answer as to its effects (s)he may give you is "I don't know". Chiros have the highest student loan default rate of all medical professions, student drop out is enormous (dissatisfaction), pay on graduation is pathetic, scope of practice is minimal, and there is a growing tendency to transition to other professions like PT, RN, PA or MD/DO.

A chiropractic education isn't even comparable to MD/DO education. It's pretty much just like the scope of practice. Chiropractic colleges in the US are free standing, private, for profit (for the rip-off) schools. These schools have very different entry requirements from MD/DO schools or even PT schools. Chiro schools do not require a bachelors degree for admission. Some of them do not even require an associates degree. The term chiropractic medicine is an oxymoron. I am a former chiropractor who went on to become a D.O.

By anon261648 — On Apr 16, 2012

Osteopaths in Australia are exactly the same as Chiropractors. They are not medical doctors and are not required to be medical doctors. The only difference between Chiropractors and Osteopaths in Australia is the philosophy in that Osteopaths believe the lymphatic system is superior compared to Chiropractors who believe the nervous system is superior.

By viqarsadiq — On Apr 11, 2012

My son has had a fall on his back a few months ago. It has spread around his back. He has had an X-ray and the bones are fine so it could be tissue, nerve or muscle. Should I take him to a chiropractor or an osteopath? I don't want to give any pain killers. For that, I can go to the family doctor. Viq

By anon137665 — On Dec 28, 2010

M.D's work for pharmaceutical companies! How can you tell? If your doc prescribes pharmaceuticals and needs xray, ct, sonograms etc for diagnosis.

By anon122603 — On Oct 28, 2010

RE: Only MDs are physicians. No kidding.

Do you think the American Medical Association might be a bit biased? Of course they say only MD and DO are physicians. The AMA represents the interests of MDs and DOs.

However, many insurance companies (less biased) define DC, DPT, Optometrist, Dentists, etc. all as physicians. Also, many state governments define DCs as physicians.

By kcmiller — On Oct 21, 2010

Only M.D.'s and D.O.'s are legally considered to be "physicians" in the United States, according to the American Medical Association.

By anon114581 — On Sep 29, 2010

According to the late psychic Edgar Cayce, adjustment to the spine through the lumbar, the sacral and to the ninth dorsal, and the coccyx area can cure asthma. He also suggested calcium should be given once each day, the quantity that would be spread on a wafer. Also take one pellet of of Codiron each day with breakfast and one with dinner, for the present.

Also when an asthma attack occurs take calcidin. One to five grains dissolved in one to five ounces of water. In the daily activities keep in the open air, sea, sand, and pines, as a regular routine. The assimilation of pine oils aids in helping the respiratory system.

This dude also cured arthritis with adjustments, and cancer with rabbits blood and ultra violet rays. Castor oil packs would also be used to activate the lymph systems natural healing ability and shrink cysts and what not.

You doctors should read up on his cures. He was looked upon as a freak by the medical community when he was alive, they kept trying to prove him a fraud, and he was arrested for fortune telling, but he wasn't found guilty. He cured people that doctors pronounced incurable. He also cured psoriasis, and named the cause as a narrowing of the small intestine, do to miss alignments which restrict circulation to the body's system of waste removal.

You docs should read some of his books, because these cures are out there and they work. If you want to close you mind to knowledge then with your large ego and all your medical training, you are stupid.

Asthma is also a karmic condition. One does not squeeze the life out of a person without having the life squeezed out of him. In other words, in a past life asthma the asthma sufferer, must have smothered or drowned someone so he or she should also ask for spiritual forgiveness.

By anon113776 — On Sep 26, 2010

I am a doctor trained in a culture that is not of the Western world (Europe/USA). Does that make me a lesser doctor?

By anon112709 — On Sep 21, 2010

Neither are doctors and neither practices are scientific. They are pseudo-sciences that owe their 'cures' to the placebo effect. Don't waste your money.

By anon103423 — On Aug 12, 2010

My opinion is that chiropractic college (training DCs) and medical/osteopathic colleges (training MDs and DOs respectively) in North America are almost identical. The primary differences come during the residency program, which MDs and DOs must complete, whereas it is still optional for DCs.

My opinion stems from discussion with my grandfather, sister-in-law and brother (All MDs) and my father, uncle and wife (all DCs). The differences that I have noted through discussion with them is that MDs and DOs receive more training in toxico-pharmacology and emergency medicine, whereas DCs receive more training in anatomy, neurology and physiology.

All three health care professionals require an undergraduate university degree to gain admission to their respective college, all three professionals complete an intensive four-year doctoral program, but where all MDs and DOs must complete a minimum three-year residency, DCs can opt to move straight into practice or complete a two or three year residency program before beginning practice.

By anon97484 — On Jul 19, 2010

A Chiropractor is a physician. The article states otherwise. Chiropractors receive as many hours of training as MD's or DO's, and are trained in internal medicine, cardiology, etc.

In some states (like Oregon where I went to school), Chiropractors also have minor surgery in the scope of their practice. Chiropractors do have less training in pharmacology, as they do not prescribe, and more training in the musculoskeltal system and hands-on treatment than any other profession in the world.

By anon78016 — On Apr 16, 2010

The following is an incorrect statement as applied to an Osteopath:

"Chiropractics and osteopaths are not doctors nor can they be according to the premise upon which they are established."

What is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)?

If you're like most people, you've been going to a physician ever since you were born and perhaps were not aware whether you were seeing a DO (osteopathic physician) or an MD (allopathic physician). You may not even be aware that there are two types of complete physicians in the United States.

The fact is that both DOGs and MDs are fully qualified physicians licensed to prescribe medication and perform surgery. Is there any difference between these two kinds of physicians? Yes. And no.

DOs and MDs are alike in many ways:

Applicants to both DO and MD medical colleges typically have four-year undergraduate degrees with an emphasis on scientific courses.

Both DOGs and MDs complete four years of basic medical education.

After medical school, both DOGs and MDs obtain graduate medical education through such programs as internships and residencies. This training typically lasts three to six years and prepares DOGs and MDs to practice a specialty.

Both DOGs and MDs can choose to practice in any specialty area of medicine-such as pediatrics, family practice, psychiatry, surgery or obstetrics.

DOGs and MDs must pass comparable examinations to obtain state licenses.

DOGs and MDs both practice in fully accredited and licensed health care facilities.

Together, DOGs and MDs enhance the state of health care available in America.

DOGs, however, belong to a separate yet equal branch of American medical care. It is the ways that DOGs and MDs are different that can bring an extra dimension to your family's health care.

By anon77716 — On Apr 15, 2010

anon65184 has a basic misunderstanding of exactly what osteopathy is. Osteopaths are doctors. In the US they can diagnose ailments and prescribe drugs if they believe that they will help in the healing process, but their underlying belief system says that the body possesses the ability to heal itself, which medical doctors do not have. Medical doctors (MDs) simply treat patients according to a pat methodology that they learned in med school. Osteopaths, from my experience, believe that other factors can affect health adversely and will manipulate the skeleton and skull if that is what is needed.

My Osteopath replied this when I asked him what he thought Osteopathy is to him: I am a Chiropractor with an MD Degree. (which, if you don't know it, is all that a Medical Doctor possesses to practice whatever branch of medicine that he (or she) chooses to.

By anon65184 — On Feb 11, 2010

Chiropractics and osteopaths are not doctors nor can they be according to the premise upon which they are established. A medical doctor is concerned with and trained in understanding, diagnosing and treating organic and non-organic, system specific and general ailments including disease, its prevention, dysfunction, injury and the pathogenesis behind these.

Furthermore all doctors are trained in treating and understanding diseases holistically (whether they choose to or not is another matter) regardless of whether it involves the musculoskeletal system, the cardiorespiratory system, GI etc..

This is fundamentally different from chiropractic and osteopathy allied health professions which are not medical. They are allied and complementary as they are essentially systems based/specific and involve practical therapy.

In that respect they are more akin to physical therapists and not doctors and medicine.

By anon58036 — On Dec 29, 2009

I'm neither but I need to see one I think(?). Question is if I see both will one outdo what the other does. Are they complementary?

By anon56303 — On Dec 14, 2009

Chiropractors and DO are not recognized as doctors in the Caribbean and in the UK.

By anon51894 — On Nov 10, 2009

Who should I go to for degenerative disc problems, a chiropractor or a DO?

By anon32593 — On May 24, 2009

An osteopath is essentially an MD with extra training. Not as akin to a chiropractor as the article would lead one to believe. Osteopaths have the exact same curriculum as MD's except we have extra lectures and labs for osteopathic manipulative medicine which MD students do not. MD's and DO's train together side by side in hospitals and residency programs. In every medical specialty there are both MD's and DO's (osteopaths). Just wanted to clarify. Because the thought that an osteopath is a chiropractor is a very common misconception.

My source is that I am an osteopathic 3rd year student.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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