How to Find the Right Specialist for Your Needs: A Full Rundown

You have problems with your body.

Whether it’s pain, discomfort, or dysfunction, you know that you need help…

Bad.

So you look up health professionals in your area to see who can help.

But who do you choose?

From physiotherapists, to chiropractors, to osteopaths… The choices are endless, and you end up being more confused than you previously were.

So let’s start with a basic rundown on all the different types of health professionals… what they do, where they were educated, and how they can help.

I’ll show you the pros and cons of each profession so that by the time you finish reading this, you’ll have a good idea of who to choose.

Personal Trainers

Pretty much anyone can call themselves a personal trainer. The jacked guy who works at your local gym. The hot fitness chick with a million followers on Instagram.

Even to become an actual ‘certified’ trainer, all you have to do is sign up for a course, take it, and complete an exam.

You can get accredited through a reputable institution such as ACE or NASM.

Most of these courses are offered online, and don’t take an extensive amount of time to finish.

Once you become certified, you can start working at a gym or renting space from one.

The hardest part is marketing yourself and getting clientele.

I’ve been “sucked-in” a bunch of times from marketing efforts such as “free personal training sessions.”

I’ve wasted tons of money on personal trainers who promised me that they could “fix my form.”

And after all of this, I’ve realized that most personal trainers don’t know “squat” about how the body actually works.

Their solution to my problems (glute imbalance and scapular winging) was to prescribe me a so-called “specialized” workout routine.

Obviously after doing these routines for awhile, I noticed no significant improvement in my movement.

Therefore, I’ve come to the conclusion that most personal trainers are useful for three things, and three things only: providing motivation, adjusting form, and prescribing routines.

The biggest disadvantage of personal trainers is that they cannot fix your form if your form is a result of deeper underlying problems or dysfunctions. 

It’s actually my fault for trusting so many personal trainers with my body.

Back then, I truly believed that my problems were fixable simply by seeing a trainer and following their prescribed routines.

I didn’t realize that my faulty form was actually caused by deeper problems… problems that most personal trainers aren’t trained to solve (e.g., a rotated pelvis, dyskinesis in the shoulders).

So to summarize, hire a personal trainer if:

  1. You are lacking in motivation
  2. Your bad form is NOT a result of an underlying problem or dysfunction
  3. You don’t know what you should be doing in the gym (and you’re too lazy to look it up yourself on the internet)

Nowadays, my body is doing a lot better, so if I were to hire a personal trainer, it would probably be someone who specializes in barbell training. This way, I would be quicker able to master the “Big 3” (squat, bench, and deadlift).

Kinesiologists

Speaking from personal experience, a kinesiologist is pretty much just a smarter personal trainer.

In Canada, all they need is a bachelors degree in kinesiology (or a related field of study), then they can get registered with their province’s kinesiology association (where they are then required to undergo continued education based on their association’s guidelines).

When I was working with my kinesiologist, pretty much all we did was workout.

I mean of course, she did the whole initial assessment and everything (which is better than a personal trainer’s assessment), but after all that, it’s just her watching you workout.

The reasons as to why I should be doing her prescribed exercises also made more sense than the personal trainers’ reasons… but in the end, her exercises didn’t fix my problems.

This is because, like personal trainers, kinesiologists aren’t trained to fix underlying muscle dysfunctions either.

To make matters worse, kinesiologists aren’t cheap (think $90 an hour), and aren’t covered by most health insurance companies.

Therefore, you should only see a kinesiologist if:

  • You are old and relatively healthy (i.e., no muscle dysfunctions or pain): a kinesiologist will be more sensitive to your body than a personal trainer.
  • You are a professional (or aspiring) athlete: a kinesiologist will provide you with a tailored workout routine.

Chiropractors

In Canada, all chiropractors hold a Doctor of Chiropractic, along with their bachelor’s degrees.

The Doctor of Chiropractic Programme takes 4-5 years to complete, and once completed, aspiring chiropractors must past a variety of exams before applying for their license.

Whereas personal trainers and kinesiologists aren’t really trained to fix problems relating to pain and dysunfunction, chiropractors are.

However, their effectiveness remains questionable.

A lot of people out there exclaim that chiropractic treatments are based on pseudoscience.

In other words, chiropractic claims sound scientifically valid, but in reality, their logic is questionable.

I’m not going to go further into this debate, however, speaking from experience, the chiropractor that I saw was unable to figure out the true cause of my problems.

I’ll tell you why.

First of all, chiropractors focus mostly on the spine and the pelvis. That’s why you’ll hear a lot of people exclaim that they need to see their chiropractor whenever they have back pain.

The downside to this emphasis on the spine and pelvis is that problems may not always originate from those two places.

For example, your pain may actually originate from a crooked neck, or from the way that you walk.

Most chiropractors aren’t trained to assess your entire body; in other words, they fail to implement an all-encompassing view.

Another issue with chiropractors is that they tend to value manual manipulation (in particular, joint mobilization and manipulation) over other methods. This is a problem because manual manipulation only offers temporary relief.

For example, when I was seeing my chiropractor in regards to my glute imbalance, all he did was crack my back and pelvis a few times in efforts to realign my pelvis and rid my leg length discrepancy.

It never worked.

Everytime that I went back to see him, he would exclaim how my body had reset itself. In other words, I had reverted back to my dysfunctional pattern. His only recommendation for me was to prescribe me custom orthotics. But that’s a story for another day.

For now, the main points I want to get across is that chiropractors suck because:

  1. They fail to implement a holistic view of the body, and…
  2. They fail to prioritize methods that result in permanent, everlasting change.

Because of these two reasons, seeing a chiropractor may result in change that is only temporary, at most.

In addition, a chiropractor may never be able to identify the true cause of your problems.

So to conclude, only see a chiropractor if you want temporary relief from back pain.

Registered Massage Therapists

To be a registered massage therapist in Canada, all you have to do is complete a program at an accredited college (includes clinical hours), then get registered with the massage therapy association in your province.

To be honest, I’ve never seen a massage therapist because I have my reliable Rumble Roller, which takes care of any soreness that I may have.

However, my brother swears by massage therapists. He claims that they get to spots that are unreachable with a foam roller.

My brother is a special case though: he has severely damaged his body from years of skateboarding and snowboarding. As a result, he has layers and layers of scar tissue built up. He claims that massage therapists are able to work through these layers and relieve the tension that he experiences. At the same time, he knows that he has to stay diligent with his home stretching routine.

Massage therapists implement a variety of massage techniques such as myofascial release, trigger point therapy, and kneading. They also implement different types of massage (e.g., deep tissue, sports, Swedish), based on your needs.

The issue I have with massage therapy is the same issue I have with chiropractors: the results, at best, are temporary.

Think about it this way: you’re sore, so you stretch and foam roll until most of the soreness subsides.

The next day, you’re sore again, so you stretch and foam roll more.

Massage therapists are the same: you’re feeling really sore…you make an appointment and go in for a massage… you leave feeling a lot better, and then a few days later you’re sore again.

What gives?

There has to be a reason why you’re always sore. Maybe it’s the way that you sit. Maybe it’s the way that you walk. Maybe it’s the way that you workout.

Massage therapists, like all the health professionals that we’ve discussed so far, have no way to identify and target underlying problems and dysfunctions.

They essentially treat symptoms (soreness) that are most likely caused by deeper problems. This ensures that you keep coming back, and this ensures that they keep getting paid.

So if you’re someone who deals with constant soreness, take a step back, and try to figure out the REAL reason why you’re actually sore.

The only people who should see massage therapists are those who are in so much pain, that they cannot even stretch or foam roll. Old people and injured athletes come to mind.

Physiotherapists

Ahhh…. physiotherapists… probably the most common title on this list.

After earning their Bachelor’s in a health science-related field, aspiring physios go on to get their Masters in Physiotherapy (MSc PT). They’ll then have to pass an exam (consisting of a written and a clinical component) before getting registered with their province’s licensing board.

Physiotherapists are so popular because they help people to rid their pain and restore proper functioning.

I like to call them the “jack-of-all-trades” because of they are able to treat a variety of problems relating to different aspects of the body:

  • Neurological: e.g., strokes, multiple sclerosis
  • Neuromusculoskeletal: eg., back pain, sport injuries
  • Cardiovascular: e.g., chronic heart disease, heart attack rehabiliation
  • Respiratory: e.g., asthma, bronchitis 

Physiotherapists work in a range of environments, including (but not limited to): schools, clinics, hospitals, and care homes.

They use a variety of techniques to facilitate rehabilitation, such as:

  • Functional testing
  • Manual manipulation
  • Electrotherapy
  • Acupunture
  • Exercise prescription

Aspiring physios must complete at least 1025 hours of supervised clinical education before being recognized in Canada.

Physiotherapists claim to implement holistic views of the body when assessing clients.

They claim that they can get to the root cause of problems… but is this really true?

From my experience: no.

Maybe because my problem was peculiar: I wasn’t suffering from any pain, and I wasn’t recovering from an injury.

I pretty much just had chronic muscle dysfunctions stemming from a variety of reasons.

I worked with several physiotherapists over the course of 2 years, but none of them could help me fix my glute imbalance and scapular winging.

Why weren’t they able to help?

Because they were all treating the symptoms, rather than the root problem.

For example, when I told these physios how I couldn’t feel my left glute activate, they just prescribed me some glute strengthening exercises, along with some hip stretches.

Of course these routines never worked, because the real reason why my hips and glutes were tight was because of a constantly rotated pelvis.

And when I told these physios how I couldn’t feel my left scap retracting as much as my right, they simply prescribed me some scapular exercises, such as rows and lat pulldowns.

Now I know, the real cause of my scapular dyskinesis was a tight thoracic spine.

If I kept seeing physiotherapists, I bet none of them would’ve ever been able to identify the root cause of my problems.

Therefore, I’ve come to the conclusion that physiotherapists are only useful if you’re suffering from pain, or from a debilitating medical condition.

Athletic Therapist

What’s the difference between an athletic therapist and a physiotherapist?

Well, instead of getting their masters in physiotherapy, an athletic therapist only needs a bachelor’s degree in athletic therapy.

The main difference between the two professions is that an athletic therapist focuses solely on musculoskeletal problems, whereas a physiotherapist can treat many more issues (e.g., neurological, cardiovascular, and respiratory).

So if you have any problems relating to your bones or muscles, an athletic therapist may be a better choice, as their required clinical hours all revolve around the treatment of the muscular system (they must complete 1200 hours).

On the other hand, a physiotherapist only needs to complete 1025 hours of supervised clinical training, and these hours are split up between the four domains (for example, they only need to complete a minimum of 100 hours in musculoskeletal).

I would only see an athletic therapist if you have problems relating to your muscles, joints and bones, and a physiotherapist hasn’t been able to help.

The downside to athletic therapists is that most of them aren’t covered by medical plans, so you’ll probably end up paying more to see one as compared to a registered physiotherapist.

At the end of the day, the athletic therapist that I saw wasn’t able to help me, as he implemented similar strategies to that of physiotherapists.

Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist

A musculoskeletal physiotherapist is pretty much a smarter and more educated athletic therapist (masters instead of just bachelors).

The musculoskeletal physiotherapist that I saw for my scapular winging was a shoulder specialist, so he actually provided a lot of insight into my dyskinesis.

He provided some very good exercises for me that resulted in stronger and more symmetrical shoulders.

However, in the end, he was just treating the symptoms (my scaps and shoulders) rather than the root cause (my thoracic spine).

Osteopaths

So if all the health professionals we’ve discussed so far are largely ineffective because they are unable to get to the root cause of problems… then who should you see?

An osteopath.

Why do I have so much love for osteopaths?

Because they actually implement a holistic view of the body, and are able to get to the root cause of whatever problems you’re experiencing.

In Canada, they have extensive training: they hold a bachelors and maybe a masters, followed by 4-years of medical education, and 2-5 years of residency in their area of interest.

Therefore, your typical osteopath will have at least 11-13 years of experience.

When I first saw my osteopath in regards to my glute imbalance and my sciatica, he was able to find the source of my problems within a few minutes: a pelvis that was constantly rotated to the right.

And within a few days of doing his prescribed exercises, my pain was completely gone!

Keep in mind that this was a problem that I was struggling with for years: identified in a few minutes, and fixed within a few days! Unbelievable!

The osteopath also uncovered the real reason why my left scap wasn’t retracting as much as my right: because of a tight thoracic spine!

Yes, that’s right! It wasn’t because my scaps were weak. It wasn’t because my serratus anterior was weak. It was because my thoracic spine was too tight!

Fix the root cause of the problem, and the symptoms go away. Osteopaths know how to do that. They don’t care for treating the symptoms, because they know that’s not going to work.

Now, my thoracic spine is a lot looser, my scaps are retracting better, and it’s only a matter of time before I can start weightlifting again… pain-free!

This is why in my opinion, osteopaths are the best!

So if you’re someone who’s tried everything: kinesiologists, chiropractors, physiotherapists… and none of them have been able to help, then it’s probably time to see an osteopath!

Your life will be changed. I can almost guarantee it.

So there you go! Your full rundown on all the health professionals, what they do, how they’re trained, and whether or not they’re right for you.

Now it’s up to you to make the right decision.

Until next time!

Darren Li

P.S. This guide is based on my experiences, and my experiences only. Therefore, be wary of generalizing my results. Of course, there are good health professionals and bad health professionals out there, regardless of their title. I’m just talking from my own experience. You may have problems that are completely different from mine, so what works for me, may not necessarily work for you.

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