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What’s the difference between Physiotherapy and Exercise Physiology?

Most of us have heard of physiotherapists, nutritionists, massage therapists and personal trainers; and we have a pretty good understanding of what they do. For many people though, Exercise Physiology is a health profession that they haven’t heard of, or don’t know much about, and often confuse it with Physiotherapy.

Both Physiotherapists and Exercise Physiologists have similar end goals when it comes to treatment. However, the treatment path to recovery will be different. Both professions work a varied scope of practice that can have some overlap, so it’s natural that some confusion exists. 

It’s important to not get roped in by buzz words or internet gimmicks when it comes to your health. Both Exercise Physiologists and Physiotherapists are health professionals you can trust to have the knowledge, qualifications and skills to best care for you and your body. But keep in mind that it’s always beneficial to have an understanding of which health profession can help you in the best way possible.

They’re both professions you can trust, and their scope of practice can have some overlap, so what’s the difference between Physiotherapy and Exercise Physiology? And how do you know who to see?

What’s the key difference between a Physiotherapist and an Exercise Physiologist?

We will be going into detail about each profession, but let’s first walk you through a brief overview. Exercise Physiologists treat patients using clinical exercise interventions and programs as their primary modality. In contrast, Physiotherapists assess, diagnose, treat and manage injuries, disabilities and pain with hands-on treatment and exercise prescription.

Knowing whether you should visit a Physiotherapist or an Exercise Physiologist for your condition can be confusing. We can refer to the different stages of the injury cycle to best determine which profession would be the most beneficial for your treatment. Let’s gain a better understanding of each profession first, before we go into more depth about the injury cycle.

What does a Physiotherapist do?

A Physiotherapist assesses, diagnoses, treats and manages conditions, disabilities, injuries and disorders that affect the movement and function of your body. Many people visit a Physiotherapist if they’ve sustained an injury or illness that prevents their normal movement. 

Some people believe that Physiotherapists mainly work with back and sport-related injuries, but this isn’t always the case. They also provide treatment to those suffering from physical problems as a result of illness, disease and ageing. Physiotherapists use physical techniques to improve movement, restore function, reduce pain and stiffness and recover from injury. Some examples of physical treatment methods include: 

  • Exercise and rehabilitation programs to help improve mobility and strengthen muscles
  • Joint manipulation and mobilisation to reduce pain and stiffness 
  • Soft tissue mobilisation/massage
  • Dry needling 

Your Physiotherapist may also give behavioural advice, health education and exercise counselling. They’re qualified to treat a range of conditions to do with the bones, muscles, nerves and joints including: 

  • Neck, back and knee pain 
  • General, work or sport-related injuries
  • Chronic pain and conditions
  • Rehabilitation post-surgery 
  • Bone, joint, muscle and ligament problems

Patient education is an essential part of a Physiotherapists job. Ensuring that the client understands their condition and treatment program is essential to an effective recovery.

What happens during a Physiotherapy appointment?

Your appointment with a Physiotherapist generally starts by getting to know you and your injury or condition. You may be asked questions about how you got hurt and what movements or activities make your pain worse and better. Your personal goals are just as important, so don’t be surprised by a range of questions during your consultation. Your injury and capabilities will be assessed through a physical examination. This will help your Physiotherapist diagnose your injury and create a treatment plan.

What does an Exercise Physiologist do?

Exercise Physiologists are university qualified allied health professionals. They specialise in the prescription of exercise and movement programs. These programs help in the prevention and management of chronic diseases and injuries by enhancing optimal physiological functioning. During the rehabilitation process, Exercise Physiology programs help to restore functionality and can bring relief from pain and discomfort. There can also be a strong focus on behavioural and lifestyle change and self-management concepts to improve the overall quality of life and wellbeing. 

Exercise Physiologists treat clients who suffer from medical conditions and injuries such as: 

  • Musculoskeletal injuries 
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • High blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis 
  • Cancers
  • Mental health issues
  • Neuromuscular diseases 
  • Chronic pain 
  • Heart disease

Exercise Physiologists also work with athletes, both recreational and elite. They can develop a targeted program that aims to improve athletic potential to enhance performance. Being in top physical condition isn’t just important for performance outcomes, but it’s also vital for minimising injury risk.

What happens during an Exercise Physiology appointment?

In an initial appointment, your Exercise Physiologist will start by getting to know you. They’ll ask you questions about your current health, physical capabilities and previous exercise history. It’s important to know your health and exercise goals so that an achievable program can be created in line with your objectives. Generally, your Exercise Physiology sessions and home-based programs can compromise of the following: 

  • Stretching and mobility movements
  • Strength and core training
  • Recommended cardiovascular exercise
  • Practising and modifying technique

Should I see a Physiotherapist or an Exercise Physiologist?

Now that we’ve gone into depth about both Physiotherapy and Exercise Physiology, you can see there are some practice overlaps. So how do you know who to see? As we mentioned previously, for those suffering an injury, we can refer to the different stages of the injury cycle to determine what path of treatment is best and most efficient.  

There are 4 stages to the injury cycle, let’s take a look: 

  • Acute – protection
  • Sub-acute – repair
  • Late – remodelling
  • Final – ongoing repair and remodelling and return to activity/function

Physiotherapists work across all phases of the injury cycle. The acute stage directly occurs after an injury has been sustained. Common symptoms can include pain, swelling, redness and loss of function to the area. Visiting a Physiotherapist in this phase is the most beneficial and effective. Early intervention is vital to shorter recovery times and in most cases, better outcomes. They’ll assess, diagnose and develop a program for you to commence your recovery and rehabilitation. 

Exercise Physiologists work mainly with those in the mid to late stages of the injury cycle. They help to prepare these people for a return to the activities and exercises that they love as safely as possible. They also work with those suffering from chronic diseases, helping preserve or restore function. Additionally, they can work with you to develop a strength and conditioning program to help take your fitness to the next level. 

If you’re still confused about whether to see a Physiotherapist or Exercise Physiologist, we’ve created a bit of a checklist. See below:

Reasons to see a Physiotherapist:

  • Experiencing pain that is new, unexpected or hasn’t yet been diagnosed
  • Sustained a sports injury
  • Recently undergone orthopaedic surgery 
  • Hands-on treatment such as dry needling, mobilisation or massage

Reasons to see an Exercise Physiologist:

  • Recovering from injury 
  • You have an old injury that you’re worried about aggravating
  • Chronic health condition 
  • You have a weight loss goal
  • If you’re wanting an exercise program to meet your health and wellness goals and needs

Here at QSMC, we offer both Physiotherapy and Exercise Physiology services that may compliment each other during your treatment. Click the links to read more about each of our services. If you’re still unsure, please don’t hesitate to contact our friendly team and we can guide you down the right treatment path. We can be reached by calling 07 3891 2000 or emailing reception@qsmc.net.au.

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