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Physiotherapy vs Sports Therapy

Written by Chris Heywood - MSc BSc (Hons) MCSP HCPC reg
Physiotherapist

This is one of the most common questions we get from our clients at Team Rehab UK, so we thought we’d write a short article to clarify it. On the surface, physiotherapists and sports therapists might seem similar, and some people even think they are the same with different titles. However, while there is an overlap, there are distinct differences between the two professions, which often leads to confusion. Both physiotherapists and sports therapists earn an honours degree, but the focus of their education differs significantly.

Firstly, I really do feel I have to highlight the fact that this is not a personal or professional attempt at one-up-man-ship. I have in the past, and will in the future, work with really good non-physiotherapist colleagues and I would not swap their skills or opinions for the world. Quite frankly there are some very over-rated, self-important physio's that I would much rather stay away from! 

This is a fun cartoon depicting a physiotherapist boxing a sports therapist to see who is best

Physiotherapy Training

Physiotherapy is a profession rooted in a modern medical approach, which is why most physiotherapists in the UK begin their careers in the NHS. They are trained to work across a wide range of clinical environments, including surgery, intensive care, obstetrics, neurology, rheumatology, respiratory care, and orthopaedics. This diverse training allows them to work alongside other health professionals such as doctors, nurses, and occupational therapists very closely and work from the same medical standpoint. ​Physiotherapists who go on to then sub-specialise in the musculoskeletal system do so generally after 5 years or so post graduate learning and experience (although this is variable and should be something you look for when researching any clinic or practitioner). 

Sports Therapy Training

Sports therapists, on the other hand, focus their entire degree on the musculoskeletal system from a sporting perspective. They typically work in gym or sports club settings and do not usually work within acute or chronic hospital settings. After graduation, they gain experience in the private sector from the outset rather than the NHS. Sports therapists receive extensive training in fitness, nutrition, and gym-related rehabilitation, making them well-suited for roles in sports and exercise environments. However, their training does not cover the same breadth of medical conditions as physiotherapists.

Professional Standards and Memberships

In the UK, all practising physiotherapists must be registered with both the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) and the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). These organizations have strict rules for membership, ensuring that all physiotherapists meet high training and practice standards (in theory).

Sports therapists, however, (to the best of my knowledge at the the time or writing) do not have a mandatory regulatory body and cannot attain chartered status. This can lead to variability in training and practice standards across different institutions. While some sports therapists are trained to a high standard in musculoskeletal medicine, others may not meet the same level of expertise. You may need to do a lot more reearch.

Choosing the Correct Practitioner

For everyday muscle pulls, tears, simple joint pains, massage, and soft tissue techniques, both physiotherapists and sports therapists can provide effective care.

 

For more complex issues such as spinal pain (e.g., low back pain, neck pain), spine-related nerve pain (e.g., sciatica), complex joint issues, post-surgical rehab, hydrotherapy, women’s health, and chronic pain, it is advisable to seek out a physiotherapist first. This is because physiotherapists receive much more comprehensive training in these areas during their training and go on to develop these further within the NHS. Despite the many negatives associated with the modern day NHS, there is little that comes equal to the sheer diversity, pressure and learning opportunities that it enforces upon it's employees (written from personal experience ad backed up by the physical and mental scars that go with it!). 

Verifying Credentials

A picture depicting a fake physiotherapist

It's important to verify the credentials of your practitioner regardless of their profession or advertised qualifications. There have been instances where clients believed they were receiving physiotherapy from someone who was not a qualified physiotherapist. In the UK, the terms "physiotherapy," "physiotherapist," "physical therapy," and "physical therapist" are legally protected. Only those registered with the HCPC can use these titles. Misleading patients by using these titles without proper qualifications is illegal and should be reported to the HCPC.

Sports therapists play a valuable role within their scope of practice and in some environments, may exceed physiotherapists. Good sports therapists are also very proud of their profession without misrepresenting their qualifications, which is only done by the minority.

Conclusion

Both physiotherapists and sports therapists are very valuable in the world of rehabilitation. The key is to understand the differences between them and choose the right practitioner for your specific needs. If in doubt, ask for recommendations from friends, family, or medical professionals. Always verify the credentials of your healthcare provider to ensure you are receiving the best possible care.

 

At Team Rehab UK, we employ highly experienced physiotherapists who are committed to providing expert care. We have in the past tried to integrate sport therapist's amongst our ranks, and may try gain in the future, however at the time it just proved a bridge to far for our clients.

I would urge you to find an honest practitioner, (ideally by recommendation from a trusted person to you), regardless of their profession, that practices within their own personal scope, and is able to achieve the clinical outcome that is important to you. At the end of the day, the true success of any treatment is whether your achieve what you wanted to, not what the clinician wants you to.

If you feel our information is helpful, please feel free to share it with others but do not take ownership in anyway

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