Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapy: Differences?

Home » Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapy: Differences?

When it comes to physical rehabilitation, the go-to professionals are Physiotherapists and Physical Therapists.

But what’s the difference? 

Below is a simple guide to these professions and what they do.

Physical Therapy vs. Physiotherapy

The difference between Physical Therapists and Physiotherapists is simply in the name! This is due to historical origins, preferences and traditions. Today, they are really the same thing. However, some PTs and Physios engage their patients more in therapeutic exercise than others, and some may be more hands-on with manual therapies. 

Origins of Physical Therapy

Physical Therapy is a branch of Healthcare that can be traced in some form, back to the Ancient Greeks. The father of medicine, Hippocrates, prescribed physical activity and massage for his patients. As time went on, physical therapy became more formalized. 

One of the first uses of physical therapy in the United States was after the Polio outbreak of 1916, when physicians realised that Polio-affected children benefit from physical treatment. Subsequent wars and epidemics ratified the need for physical-based treatment plans alongside Medicine. 

Physical Therapy pioneer Mary McMillan developed a system of exercises that could be used to treat many physical conditions, and she also established the American Women’s Physical Therapeutic Association, which helped to legitimize the field. 

physiotherapy arm treatment

Origins of Physiotherapy

In contrast, the term “Physiotherapy” has its roots in physical education and exercise. It was originally used more in a gymnastics context. In the late 19th century, physical educators began to use massage and other forms of manual therapy to treat their students.

The term Physiotherapy was preferred in Europe, Britain and its colonies, however the USA stuck with “Physical Therapy”

Definition of Physical Therapy

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) takes a broad definition of the profession:

“Physical therapists are movement experts who improve quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education.”

What a Physical Therapist treats

There’s a huge range of conditions for which people are prescribed Physical Therapy. Some include:

As you can see, PTs are healthcare workers who may consult with patients who have suffered serious illness, perhaps due to complications after a car accident.

Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapy: Both treat many types of clients.

What a Physiotherapist Treats

The exact same thing as Physical Therapists! Each condition requires expertise for a nuanced treatment plan.

Someone with neck pain or back pain may need soft tissue release including fascial release, with exercises, to reduce joint pain and strengthen the muscles around the spine.

Someone with carpal tunnel syndrome may need joint mobilization and exercises to improve the nervous system function in that area.

Modern Treatment Methods

PT/PHY treatment plans share common goals: to assess the whole person’s specific needs in a hospital or outpatient clinic. Then, to help achieve optimal function in their activities of daily living (ADL’s). They may have different personal approaches and beliefs.

PTs and physios primarily use a combination of exercise, manual therapy, and education to treat their patients.

What is Manual Therapy?

Manual therapy is any type of physical treatment that uses hands-on techniques to relieve pain and/or improve function. Common manual therapy techniques include:

  • Massage
  • Joint mobilization and manipulation.
  • Acupressure
  • Dry needling 
  • Muscle energy techniques, e.g Post-isometric Relaxation (PIR)
physical therapy and physiotherapy dry needling
Dry needling is a manual therapy technique gaining popularity within Physiotherapy.

Physical Therapists and Physiotherapists tend to develop treatment plans that are focused on helping their patients achieve specific goals. For example, they may develop a strength training plan to improve balance issues, or help a patient regain activities of daily living after a musculoskeletal or vascular injury.

Many Physical Therapists work closely with other professionals, such as occupational therapists and chiropractors.

PT Training and Qualifications

Physical therapy vs. Physiotherapy

Both must complete a rigorous training program. In the United States, PTs must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from an accredited physical therapy program.

PHYs in their respective countries must earn, for example, a Master of Physiotherapy (MPT) degree from an accredited physiotherapy program, such as in Australia. There, it is a four year Bachelor’s degree, accompanying the colloquial title of “Physio”.

Private practice vs institutional care

PTs/ PHYs can work in a variety of settings, including private practice, hospitals, outpatient clinics, and nursing homes for geriatric physical therapy.

PTs who work in private practice typically see patients with a wide range of conditions, aiming to improve quality of life or sporting performance. 

PTs who work in institutional settings such as hospitals or clinics often specialize in a particular area, such as cardiology or neurology. They liase with medical professionals and require excellent communication and note-taking skills

There are pros and cons to both private practice and institutional care.

Private practice PTs have more control over their schedules and the types of patients they see. However, they may have less job security than PTs who work in institutional settings.

PTs who work in institutional settings often have access to more resources and support staff. However, they may have less autonomy.

physiotherapy hip treatment
Physiotherapists and PTs both work in private and public settings


So there you have it – the answer to Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapy is simply in the name. Some PTs engage their patients more in therapeutic exercise than others, and some may be more hands-on with manual therapies.

Much of this comes down to the treatment setting and personal preferences of the therapist.

However, both professions draw on many treatment options and methods to restore range of motion, help with prevention of injury and improve people’s lives.

Home » Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapy: Differences?

Author Bio

Dr Jason Whealing headshot

Dr. Jason Whealing is a Chiropractor with extensive experience across the UK and Australia. He is passionate about family care and injury management. The cases Jason works with daily include back pain, neck pain, jaw pain, sciatica, knee pain, shoulder pain, headaches and migraine.

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