Kinesiologist vs. Physiotherapist: Top 5 Questions Answered

You may be weighing the benefits of a kinesiologist versus a physiotherapist if you're seeking help with an injury for yourself or a client. Or maybe, like many people I know who are looking to get fit and return to the activities they did in the past – you may be a bit intimidated by all this Information! 

The main differences between these two professions is nuanced, as both focus on rehabilitation and helping folks regain movement & function. Testing these two professions out takes a lot of time, and settling on the wrong clinician will can be expensive and slow your progress.

If you're looking for the right practitioner you most likely want a quick and thorough answer to the questions of kinesiology vs. physiotherapy: what are they? how do their treatments differ? and which one is right for you? then this blog is for you!

Symmetrix award winning kinesiology studio

I run an award winning (Kinesiologist of the Year, CKA 2021; Vancouver’s Top Kinesiology Studio 2022) rehab and training studio offering kinesiology services, and we regularly refer to and receive referrals from local physiotherapists. That means our clients regularly see both kinesiologists and physiotherapists, and our team understands the roles of each to best serve our clients. 

This blog draws on our in-house knowledge and professional scope of practice for 2022. I’m using this information to update our most popular blog that has already helped thousands of readers. 

This year I've also written about the difference between kinesiologists and personal trainer, athletic therapist and sports medicine doctor, so feel free to check out the whole series.

By popular demand, here's an updated, high-level look at the difference between kinesiologists and physiotherapists to help you decide which one is right for you, now.

What are kinesiologists and physiotherapists?

Let's clear up the obvious: physiotherapy is not the same as kinesiology.

Physiotherapy is the holistic application of movement sciences. A physiotherapist must complete a masters degree in physiotherapy learning to treat patients who suffer from function or mobility issues. These can be due to injury, illness, surgery, or even chronic diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, and other conditions. A physiotherapist prescribes active and passive techniques with the aim of helping the body heal from injury.

And if you've gotten this far and find yourself mixing up kinesiologists with another health field field like athletic therapists or sports medicine, you can find out what kinesiologists do in our blog "What Does a Kinesiologist Do?"

Kinesiologists are experts in human movement

In simple terms kinesiology is the scientific study of human movement and its biological components. A Kinesiologist uses active techniques informed by their deep understanding of anatomy, exercise physiology, biomechanics, neuroscience, and nutrition to improve human performance and function. Kinesiologists treat health and movement issues with the aim of optimizing the body’s potential.

Kinesiologist vs physiotherapist: what's the difference?

So what's the difference between a kinesiologist and a physiotherapist? Both practitioners have spent years learning about how the human body moves, and both are skilled in therapeutic exercises. Physiotherapy and kinesiology are allied (paramedical) health professions, they both work to improve their client's quality of life, and both strive to educate their clients for long-term benefit.

A physiotherapist can diagnose. They use hands-on techniques like dry needling and joint manipulation and provide clients with an exercise program as homework. A kinesiologist leads clients through agility, mobility and strength exercises that emphasize proper form, and sessions are 15-30 minutes longer.

Kinesiologists help their clients overcome long standing injuries, reduce chronic pain and optimize their body’s performance through exercise and functional movement. In contrast, physiotherapists help clients heal from acute injury and manage recurring flare-ups and disease with manual manipulation, intramuscular stimulation (dry needling), and other passive treatments mixed with exercise and movement.

How do Their Treatments Differ?

Physiotherapists and Kinesiologists serve complementary purposes with different focuses and hence they provide different treatments.

Physiotherapists diagnose musculoskeletal issues and plan restorative care in a clinical setting. They assess, diagnose, and treat patients with passive manual techniques such as massage, mobilization, and manipulation.

Other passive treatments used by physiotherapists include dry needling, ultrasound therapy, and TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation). Many of their prescriptive processes are based on assistive, adaptive, supportive, and protective equipment or devices.

A Kinesiologist, on the other hand, creates active programs and gives verbal cues to clients during therapy. Kinesiologists have an in-depth knowledge of body movement, rehabilitation, and strengthening. They direct clients programs using active treatments such as resistance and cardiovascular training to guide them towards reaching their goals.

After an initial assessment, a Kinesiologist develops their clients’ treatment program. Using baseline measures from their assessment, a kinesiologist’s program is focused on their client’s goals – whether fitness, function or body mechanics.

Can a kinesiologist do manual therapy? 

The main difference between kinesiologists and physiotherapists is that passive manual therapy techniques are sometimes within a kinesiologist’s scope of practice, but used uncommonly; other than Passive Stretching which is commonly used by kinesiologists. Passive stretching is a technique kinesiologists use that is hands-on and technically a form of manual therapy. Physiotherapists, on the other hand, have specific training in how to mobilize joints and soft tissues and manual therapy techniques to restore their clients’ movement and function are certainly within their scope. 

Don’t be thrown off if your kinesiologist is performing some type of manual manipulation or massage technique, because with the right training some manual techniques are within the scope of practice for kinesiologists. Two common “hands on” techniques within their scope are soft tissue release and active stretching. Kinesiologists who have additional training can perform these two techniques, both of which are active, hands-on therapies. 

Can a kinesiologist diagnose?

If you're wondering "what can a kinesiologist diagnose?" you might be surprised to learn that diagnosis is not within the scope of practice for a kinesiologist, leaving diagnosis to doctors and physiotherapists. Instead kinesiologists work within their scope of expertise to figure out your issue, communicate with your health team and present a program for your recovery.

How Much Attention do they both give?

It is common for physiotherapists and kinesiologists to offer 1-on-1 sessions with clients, although classes and combined sessions are not uncommon. 

Difference between a kinesiologist and a physiotherapist

In a clinical setting physiotherapists commonly work with clients in 30 minute sessions after a 45 minute initial assessment. The equivalent setting for a kinesiologist is a fitness studio rather than a treatment room, where kinesiologists typically offer one hour, one-on-one sessions to clients. The length of the session allows a kinesiologist to develop more personal and individualized care when compared to a physiotherapist.

The same applies to fitness training where kinesiologists help the broader community reach mobility or fitness goals. As a trainer, kinesiologists are just as comfortable training athletes as retirees. It’s common for personal training sessions to last from 60 minutes, but can even extend to 90 minutes.

Do physiotherapists or kinesiologists do group classes?

You may find both physiotherapists and kinesiologists leading group classes, for example the GLA:D program run by physiotherapists as a group class for clients with arthritis. For their part kinesiologists commonly lead all types of group fitness sessions including partner sessions, circuits and classes.

Does the scope of practice for each profession's overlap?

Yes, the scope of practice for kinesiologists and physiotherapists overlaps, which probably explains many people's confusion on what the difference is. Both professions use physical techniques to improve their client's function and quality of life.

The two professions work within a scope of practice, a set of permitted treatments and restricted activities. In the case of physiotherapists, their scope is regulated, or in other words set by a legislated college. The scope of practice for a kinesiologist is either regulated or slated by a provincial association depending on the province. Having provincial organizations overseeing the scope of practice for each profession means that the scope may vary slightly from province to province.

One main difference in scope of practice between the two professions is that active treatments and ergonomics are more relevant to a kinesiologists' scope. Physiotherapists are able to diagnose and perform physical manipulations and perform more intricate bodily procedures like manual joining manipulation, inserting a catheter and fixing a dislocation. Although kinesiologists may perform some manual therapy and physiotherapists dabble in active therapy, their overall scope is shaped by these two distinctions.

Should you see a kinesiologist or a physiotherapist first?

A physiotherapist is a good choice for your initial sport or motor vehicle accident (MVA) injury treatment as they can diagnose and use manual manipulation to decrease inflammation and promote healing. 

After the initial symptoms have decreased in the days or weeks following your injury, a kinesiologist leads you in exercises specific for injuries sustained specific to their clients' activities or sports. There are so many reasons to see a kinesiologists, but there's no hard and fast rule about which to see first. When in doubt check with your doctor. 

Sports injury rehab with kinesiologist or physiotherapist first?

For a sports injury?

A physiotherapist will assess and diagnose a sports injury, helping reduce pain and swelling, whereas a kinesiologist will focus on the active component of rehab. A physiotherapist may refer to a kinesiologist after initial symptoms have lessened to begin active rehabilitation. 

It's never too soon to reintroduce movement and a kinesiologist will help their sports injury clients do this safely. The kinesiologist will lead a sports injury client through rehab exercises perfectly suited to their abilities. These exercises, together with a physiotherapists' diagnosis and manual therapy will help the client get back to life activities, training and sport as quickly as possible.

After a car accident?

Following a motor vehicle accident (MVA), a physiotherapist will assess, diagnose and treat the injury to reduce pain, swelling or other symptoms whereas a kinesiologist focuses on muscle imbalances and movement. Clients in the early stages may seek a kinesiologist specializing in active rehabilitation with the goal of achieving better physical function quickly. Both a kinesiologist and physiotherapist are well suited to boost their clients' strength and functioning towards their pre-accident level (and in some cases beyond).

Why is kinesiology important for physiotherapy?

Kinesiologists and physiotherapists have the same goal with clients: to restore, maintain and improve their client's function. Together the two types of health professionals can approach a client's rehab or health challenges from different perspectives: Physiotherapy’s passive manipulation, dry needling and electrical stimulation as well as kinesiology’s active therapy like exercise prescription and proprioceptive neuromuscular stimulation. A kinesiologist is a perfect collaborator to build on a client's achievements with a physiotherapist, and go further by leading the client through active therapy.

Which is better, kinesiology or physiotherapy?

Both kinesiology and physiotherapy complementary approaches to your healthcare have significant upside. As I run a kinesiology studio we regularly see clients doing one or the other or both concurrently. My observation is that clients get best results from working with a health team including a physiotherapist and a kinesiologist, and sticking with the program they provide.

Which One Do You Need?

I’m biased, but If you find yourself dealing with a sports injury, suffering long term pain or experiencing mobility issues, or you’re simply seeking better overall fitness – then a kinesiologist is definitely well worth considering. Not only can kinesiologists help you achieve better mobility or help overcome long-term injuries or pains, but they will provide you with the tools to improve your own health and to function at your physical peak.

Hone your understanding and find out more about the differences between kinesiologists and other health professions like athletic therapists, personal trainer and sports medicine doctors on our blog.

Why would you see a kinesiologist?

There are so many reasons to see a kinesiologist, after an injury, getting fit or returning to activities you love. Make sure to check out our recent blog post, why you should see a kinesiologist.

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