Chiropractors and osteopaths are both medical professionals who treat patients with a focus on the musculoskeletal system, including the spine, joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The two professions are actually radically different, requiring different levels of certification and ultimately offering different services. There has also been some historical hostility between the two fields, which can make sorting out the differences rather challenging. Essentially, both offer valuable and useful services, and each can be included in a holistic healthcare regimen.
A chiropractor is a medical professional trained in chiropractic medicine, typically in a three to four year program. The student learns about anatomy, physiology, and biology, and focuses on the skeletal system. Chiropractic doctors believe that many health problems are related to imbalances in the musculoskeletal system, and they learn to perform small adjustments to this system while in school. Contrary to popular belief, these adjustments are not limited to the back. Chiropractics is a specialty, as opposed to osteopathy, which is more like a medical philosophy.
An osteopath, on the other hand, is much more like a physician, especially in the United States. Professionals in this field believe in treating the body as a whole, and include the muscoloskeletal system as an important structure in their practice, but they do not believe that a myriad of problems can be solved through adjustments. They focus on preventative medicine and caring for the musculoskeletal system to reduce problems, but they also offer other types of medical treatment. In the United States, they must be licensed physicians and are able to perform surgery, prescribe medicine, and offer other medical services depending on what field they have chosen to specialize in.
Both professions have trade organizations, such as the American Osteopathic Association, to oversee the activities of their members. An osteopath and a chiropractor must both take qualifying examinations before being admitted to practice, and they must participate in continuing education to be licensed through the region in which they practice. Both may also provide referrals to medical specialists in order to treat particular conditions.
As a general rule, an osteopath receives more education than a chiropractor, especially for some specialties. The first is a medical doctor with a focus on holistic health, whereas the second practices in a highly specialized and unique field. An osteopath can provide general care, including manipulations, while a chiropractor offers the specific service of adjustments and manipulations with the intent of improving health and reducing pain.