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Chiropractor vs. Physical Therapist: What’s the difference and who do I choose?

I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked by patients about my opinion on Chiropractors and whether they should be seeing both a physical therapist and a Chiropractor. Physical Therapy and Chiropractic treatments share many similar qualities which can be confusing, even to clinicians, to explain the difference.

Both Physical Therapists and Chiropractors are required to hold a doctorate in their respective fields and are licensed to diagnosis and treat individuals who have aches, pains and other orthopedic conditions impacting their daily activities. Modalities such as heat, TENS/IFC, ultrasound and traction may be used by either profession to decrease pain.

Chiropractors center on the spine for diagnosis and treatment of pain through realigning the vertebrae using manipulation. It is their belief that with proper spinal alignment, the nervous system, which controls your muscles, will function better and therefore allow improved movement patterns. Physical Therapists are specialists in all the body’s muscles and joints. When you are evaluated by a Physical Therapist, they assess your ROM, strength, flexibility, balance, posture, endurance, body mechanics, spinal alignment and coordination. They will know whether a pain is related to a joint being too lax, muscles being too tight or weak or if the pain is nerve related.

Many spine pain issues cannot be addressed by mobilization or manipulation alone because spinal alignment is not responsible for the pain, but rather, weakness or tightness of muscles is the cause. In addition to the modalities mentioned above, a Physical Therapy treatment may consist of manual therapy to address spine mobility, soft tissue and fascial restrictions, muscle spasms or flexibility.

Patients will typically tell me they were told by a friend to go to their Chiropractor who they have been seeing every other month for 5 years. In contrast, a Physical Therapist’s goal is to educate a patient in the recovery process in order to empower the patient to be independent in the treatment and rehabilitation of their injury. Exercise programs are unique to the individual based on the identified deficits, your goals and your tolerance.

In the past the only way to be seen by a Physical Therapist was to be referred by a physician, however, as the medical community recognized the vital role Physical Therapists play in conservatively treating musculoskeletal conditions and education requirements increased, therapists can see patients up to 30 days before needing a physician referral. Now patients can not only see a Physical Therapist quicker and easier but most insurance companies will cover their services versus a chiropractor’s.

Chiropractors are well trained and certainly play an important role in healthcare but Physical Therapists perform comprehensive evaluations to address pain in the extremities as well as in the spine. They take a functional approach to recovery and teach patients to be independent in their recovery.