​This is perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions we get from our clients at Team Rehab uk so we though we had better write a short article on it.

On the face of things it might seem like these two types of practitioner are similar, in fact some people even thing they are the same with a different title. The truth however is that they are really quite different but have an overlap, and it is this overlap that is most commonly seen by the public and causes most of the confusion. So let's try to clear this up a bit.

Firstly, for any of my professional colleagues out there, I have done my best to give an honest overview of this subject. Unfortunately as both physiotherapists and sports therapists often compete for similar patient markets they do not always represent the most collaborative of practitioners however they really are different enough to each excel in their areas of expertise. Until very recently we had an excellent sports therapist as part of our team but the draw of lecturing lured her away. We found however that we could swap ideas and talk about patients from different approaches which only helped to provide more treatment options for our clients. 

I have read a few articles on this subject that are aimed solely at one up man ship, but I will try to stay as accurate as I can!!

Both physiotherapists and sports therapists undertake an honours degree, a physiotherapist in physiotherapy and a sports therapy in sports therapy. It is in this degree however that the first large divergence occurs.

Physiotherapy is a profession that mirrors a modern medical approach which is why almost all physiotherapists in the UK graduate into the NHS setting, and work within the NHS for at least part of their career. Because there are so many areas of medicine such as surgery, intensive care, obstetrics, neurology, rheumatology, respiratory, orthopaedics, etc etc, physiotherapists train to be capable of working in a wide range of clinical environments, often work along side other health professionals such as doctors, nurses and occupational therapists, but to name a few.

I myself studied and graduated in London and started my professional career on the outskirts on London, in Ilford. For the 1st year of my career I worked exclusively in general medicine and intensive care. This was primarily so I could then partake in the oncall Intensive Care rota to earn some extra cash, but that setting is a far cry form the area of musculoskeletal (muscle, joint bones, nerve) that I myself specialise in today. Many of my patients are surprised when they happen to find out the areas in which I have worked but this means I have a very broad spectrum  of clinical experience to call upon, when I see patients in the outpatient setting.

Sports Therapists on the other hand spend their entire degree studying around musculoskeletal system, but never normally work within acute or chronic hospital settings. After graduation they normally work independently, or in gym or sports club settings. They will also undertake more training in relation to general fitness training, nutrician and gym related rehabilitation, than the average physiotherapist, in their basic training.

In private practice, a vast majority of physiotherapists that you will encounter will have sub-specialised in the musculoskeletal system and this represents the outpatient, or private clinics, that your would attend with a pulled muscle pull, bad back etc. This is the area where the cross over and confusion starts.

I don't think I would be out of place suggesting that the quality of training for sports therapists can be very much more variable than that of a physiotherapist. This is due to the fact that every physiotherapist that practices in the UK must be chartered and to be this, you must be registered with both the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy as well as the Health Care and Professions Council. Both organisations have very strict rules for membership and as such the training must adhere to minimal levels.

Sports Therapists do not however have to be a member of an affiliated body and do not have the ability to gain chartered status. This means that although some institutions do train to a level of musculoskeletal medicine pretty much equivalent to that of a physiotherapist, there are also many that are not. I have met quite a few final year, and post grad sports therapists, either for work experience or as patients and to be blunt, apart from two, their knowledge was simply not good enough to be working in private practice. I personally feel that if people are parting with their hard earned money for treatment they deserve to be getting an expert opinion. 

Now the same can be said for post grad physiotherapists knowledge as well, without doubt, but because it is extremely rare for them to move in to private practice for a few years, the knowledge and experience deficit is not so acute. It is fair to say that any profession can have good and bad eggs as well and the physiotherapy and sports therapy environments are no different. At Team Rehab uk we have tried to take the path that many have not, and try to bring these to professions closer together rather than battling between us. It is fair to say however that a majority of our self funding clients preferred to see a physiotherapist, despite the sports therapists having a cheaper rate, much more so that we had planned - but we were trying something different and literally put the two professions in the same clinic. although we won't rule out employing another sports therapist, I think we would have to think carefully how we would go about doing this.

As I attested to above both professions can have good and bad practitioners and so the first port of call on your agenda should be to get recommendations from friends, colleagues and family members. This is no different from finding a plumber, car mechanic or builder. If you are seeing a Consultant then ask for their opinion, they will know who are good and bad bets i the local area. GP's can sometimes be a bit more reserved in recommending private clinicians so you will need to ask on an individual basis to test the water!

I would suggest that for every day muscle pulls, tears, simple joint pains, massage and soft tissue techniques, both physiotherapists and sports therapists will be able to look after you just as well as each other.  

For spinal pain/disorders (low back, neck etc) or spine related nerve pain (sciatica, pins and needles, limb numbness etc), complex joint issues, post surgical rehab, hydrotherapy, women's health and chronic pains I would definitely seek out a physiotherapist first.

In my experience, physiotherapists tend to have more knowledge and expertise in spinal pain and at the front end of the clinical journey in hospitals and surgical rehabilitation. The middle ground of assessment, diagnosis and treatment is largely separated only by the skills and knowledge of the individual practitioners, regardless of their profession. The sports therapists may have more skills when it comes to reintegration into sports and gym settings, depending on their experience, but this is not always the case. The physiotherapists then tend to have more knowledge at the back end of the clinical journey when it comes to chronic pains.

If you are seeking treatment via a private health insurance such as AXA, Bupa etc, you will need to see a physiotherapist (also one that is registered with the company in question) as sports therapists are not recognised by them.

For those of you with post stroke, brain injury, or neurological conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, should seek out a specialist Neurological Physiotherapist. Theses are practitioners that specialised in neurological rehabilitation and are quite different from the musculoskeletal physiotherapists.

Is short, no. This is where much of the frustration that physiotherapists can have with the sports therapy profession comes from as time after time we find sports therapy clinics offering 'physiotherapy assessments' or 'physiotherapy treatment' or may even have reference to physiotherapy in the company title, despite there being no physiotherapists employed there. 

This is in fact completely illegal as the term physiotherapy, physiotherapist, physical therapy and physical therapist were all protected throughout the uk back in 2005. This was to allow a clear distinction between chartered physiotherapists and other types of practitioner. In a court of law if would be deemed the same as someone who was not a doctor of medicine saying that they were!

The majority of sports therapists would support me in encouraging you to report and clinics or practitioners that do this, to the HCPC so that they can investigate. Those that continue to do this only serve to put people at risk by deliberately misleading them and also give good sports therapists and chartered physiotherapists a bad name.

I am sure that despite my best efforts to discuss this topic fairly, I will still get some haters but alas, I have done my best to represent both professions as best as I am able.