Physical Therapy and Physiotherapy • What’s the Difference?

What's the difference between physical therapy and physiotherapy? Physiotherapist working with patient

What’s the difference between physical therapy and physiotherapy? The words sound alike and have similar meanings, but they’re often used in different contexts. We’ll explore the meanings and connotations of physical therapy and physiotherapy.

If you’re considering a career in physical therapy or physiotherapy, we’ve also discussed the salary and job outlook in this article.

What is Physical Therapy?

Mayo Clinic describes physical therapy as “therapeutic care to restore movement and function to people disabled by disease or injury.” They note that physical therapy care can include:

  • Exercise
  • Training in activities of daily living
  • Education

For example, a physical therapist might train someone with an arm injury to open a door knob (activities for daily living). The therapist would also prepare and do exercises with the patient for rehabilitation (exercise). The therapist could also teach the patient how to do appropriate exercises at home, as well as sharing what to expect in the recovery process (education).

Physical therapy can be used in a wide variety of situations. Sports injuries are one common example. Initially, the physical therapy will focus on helping the patient recover from the injury, such as a sprained ankle.

As the ankle recovered, the physical therapist might emphasize exercises to strengthen the ankle and prevent future ankle sprains.

In other cases, a physical therapist might work with a patient to help them avoid a surgery. Rotator cuff injuries are one example of this type of therapy.

Adjusting to an artificial limb is a long and difficult process, and physical therapists work closely with patients to help them re-learn the practical life skills that will improve their mobility and quality of life.

Older patients who need to use assistive devices like a cane or brace will also meet with physical therapists to learn how to use these devices around the home and in the community.

Improving balance, relieving pain, and dealing with chronic conditions such as arthritis are a few other areas where physical therapists assist their patients in attaining a greater quality of life.

From strokes to sports injuries, physical therapists address a wide variety of physical challenges through exercise, training, and education.

Now let’s take a look at physical therapy and physiotherapy, which can have a slight difference in meaning (especially in the United States).

What is Physiotherapy?

Now that we’ve briefly covered physical therapy, what is physiotherapy? The answer partially depends on your nationality.

In Australia, Canada, and many parts of Europe, physical therapy is known as physiotherapy. In these regions, physiotherapy and physical therapy are the same thing.

In these countries, physiotherapists act in the same capacity we described above, with an emphasis on exercise, training, and education to restore patients’ movement and function.

The education to become a physiotherapist will also vary from country to country, with some only requiring four years of higher education.

In the U.S., physical therapists used to earn a shorter Master of Physical Therapy degree. These days, this has shifted to four-year graduate programs to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy.

Of course, there are also options to work in physical therapy without as much education by becoming a physical therapy assistant.

To recap, physical therapy and physiotherapy are the same in Australia, Canada, and most of Europe. So what’s the difference between physical therapy and physiotherapy in the United States?

What’s the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Physiotherapy?

In the United States, physical therapy and physiotherapy can refer to the same thing, but that’s not usually the case. Physical therapy is used much more commonly than physiotherapy in education, healthcare systems, and elsewhere.

When you hear the terms physiotherapy and physiotherapist in the U.S., it usually refers to a similar field of work, but with an approach that emphasizes stretches, joint mobilization, massage, soft-tissue release, and other physical, hands-on treatment.

Physiotherapists are likely to work to release tension in soft tissue through massage, myofacial release, and other therapies. Physiotherapists may also use electrotherapy techniques like TENS, which a physical therapist would not generally use.

In most states, you can’t claim to be a physiotherapist unless you are a licensed physical therapist. In other states, some chiropractic offices may offer physiotherapy, and the service may not be provided by a licensed physical therapist. For this reason, it’s good to ask if a physiotherapist is fully licensed as a physical therapist, especially outside of hospital settings.

So to summarize, physical therapy and physiotherapy in the United States may refer to the same thing. However, physiotherapy often implies a slightly different approach with interventions that commonly include hands-on therapy such:

  • Stretches
  • Mobilizing joints
  • Releasing soft tissue
  • Electrotherapy

Many of these physiotherapists will work in hospital settings and may work with post-operative patients and others in need of short-term therapy.

What About Occupational Therapy?

To provide some more clarity, let’s explore another common question—what’s the difference between physical therapy, physiotherapy, and occupational therapy?

The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences describes the difference this way:

“PT focuses on improving the patient’s ability to move their body whereas an OT focuses on improving the patient’s ability to perform activities of daily living.”

In practice, there is a lot of overlap between the three fields, but occupational therapists will focus more on reaching that end goal of enabling patients to do the work and hobbies that they find meaningful.

Physical therapists will focus mostly on how to improve patients’ physical abilities as much as possible, which does have the secondary benefit of helping people do daily tasks. As you can see, the two emphases can actually work out in very similar ways.

Practically, physical therapists, physiotherapists, and occupational therapists will fulfill different roles in healthcare settings. OTs often work more with upper extremities and fine motor skills, while PTs often work more with lower extremities and gross motor skills.

Occupational therapy also has roots in mental health treatment, and training includes classes on psychology.

In summary, these three jobs are very closely related with different emphases, and different roles in helping patients to achieve the best recovery and life possible.

Conclusion on Physical Therapy vs Physiotherapy

As we discussed, physical therapy and physiotherapy can refer to exactly the same thing, with each term being more prevalent in different countries.

In the United States, the terms may have the same meaning, but physiotherapy often implies more hands-on interventions such as stretches and massage.

This is in contrast to physical therapy’s emphasis on exercise to strengthen and rehabilitate.

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