Physical Therapist vs. Chiropractor: What's the Difference?


When you are looking to get some relief from your pain, you will do almost anything just to feel better! From acupuncture, to chiropractic, to injections, and physical therapy – there’s an answer for everyone. Two of the most common “treatments” that are sought out, however, are chiropractors and physical therapists. But do you know the difference between them? Most people don’t!

What are the Main Differences in Schooling for a Physical Therapy & Chiropractor?

Schooling Physical Therapists are now required to get their Doctorate of Physical Therapy. The whole schooling process takes approximately 7 years; 4 years of undergrad & 3 years of physical therapy school. While in physical therapy school, the aspiring therapist completes a minimum 30-week total internship which can be divided amongst several clinics. Upon graduating from physical therapy school, the Physical Therapist must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam. Each state has different requirements, too. In order for the Physical Therapist to start practicing in their desired state, they may be required to pass different tests including but not limited to ethics, character, laws, etc.

In comparison, Chiropractors are now also required to earn their Doctorate in Chiropractic. The process of earning their doctorate takes between 6-8 years; 4 years of undergrad & 2-4 years in chiropractic school (most are nationally accredited, 4-year programs). Their curriculum includes a minimum of 4,200 hours of classroom, lab, and clinical internship. Following graduation from chiropractic school, they must complete a 1-year residency &, similar to physical therapists, pass a board exam & meet the requirements of their state.

Treatment

Physical therapists evaluate, diagnose, and provide treatment to help restore movement dysfunctions and mobility limitations in their patients. They look at & evaluate your range of motion, strength, balance, flexibility, mechanics, etc. Their typical patient is one who has suffered from an injury, has a disease, or has problems associated with the aging process. From their evaluation, they build a treatment plan designed specifically for their patient.

Physical therapists use different techniques in their treatment of their patients including; ice/heat, stimulation, ultrasound, manual therapy (aka massage) which includes joint mobilizations. Their main goals are to see their patients return to their daily activities using proper mechanics & eliminating the pain they walked in the door with.

Chiropractors on the other hand, diagnose, treat, and help to prevent mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system. They work to restore the function of your spine by realigning the vertebrae using what most people know as adjustments. The goal of the adjustments is to put a vertebrae that is out of alignment back into alignment, alleviating pain and allowing the brain to communicate with every part of the body more efficiently.

Neither chiropractors or physical therapists can prescribe medication to help resolve your problems. If a medication such as a muscle relaxer is needed, they may suggest that you see your doctor. Additionally, both chiropractors and physical therapists use what is known as conservative treatment options meaning they can't and won't jump to "you need to have surgery" before trying more natural remedies.

So Which Should You See?

Different things work for different people just like some people prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate ice cream. Some things, for whatever reason, just work better for one person over another. If you've been to a chiropractor and had relief, maybe they are your best bet. If you've been to a physical therapist and noticed improvement, maybe they are your best bet! The best answer? Consult with your doctor! There are, however, a few circumstances that you can eliminate the chiropractor or physical therapist on your own.

Circumstances you should NOT to see a chiropractor

If you suffer from a herniated disk, there is a risk associated with getting adjusted by a chiropractor. In order for them to do the adjustment, they apply a quick, but controlled force with either their hands or a tool. According to MayoClinic, there is a chance that the adjustment could make things worse, not better.

Another more extreme circumstances is the risk of stroke. When the neck is adjusted, there is a chance that an artery is ruptured or stretched which could result in a stroke.

Other websites list things such as cancer, dislocations, severe osteoporosis, bone tumors, arthritis, fractures, or history of aneurysms as red flags that chiropractic care is not your best solution.

Circumstances you should NOT see a physical therapist

As we mentioned in a previous article, there are several reasons you should go to your doctor rather than your physical therapist. These include:

  • If you are experiencing internal pain (pain that is internally deep, that isn't affected by touch)

  • If you are experiencing pain only at night

  • If you have severe pain or numbness that came on suddenly with no known injury

  • If you are having difficulty using the restroom or are experiencing pain associated with using the restroom

  • If you are experiencing pain with coughing, sneezing, or bearing down

  • If you are experiencing neurological symptoms (i.e. severe dizziness, ringing in the ears, changes with vision, etc.)

Again, if there are things within your medical history that make you question who you should see for help, consult your doctor. They can guide you appropriately.

Both chiropractors and physical therapists are able to help individuals overcome their pain. Which one works best for you is all personal preference. If you are looking for pain relief, consult with your doctor about what you can do and who you should see to manage your pain.

References

Pain Doctor, "Chiropractic Vs. Physical Therapy, Massage, And Reiki," https://paindoctor.com/chiropractic-vs-physical-therapy/

American Chiropractic Association, "Chiropractic Qualifications", https://www.acatoday.org/Patients/Why-Choose-Chiropractic/Chiropractic-Qualifications Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Chiropractors," https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/mobile/chiropractors.htm


https://collegegrad.com/careers/physical-therapists

American Physical Therapy Association, "Physical Therapist Education Overview", https://www.apta.org/For_Prospective_Students/PT_Education/Physical_Therapist_(PT)_Education_Overview.aspx

Science-Based Medicine, "Chiropractic and Spinal Manipulation Red Flags: A Comprehensive Review" by Sam Homola, July 7, 2017, https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/chiropractic-and-spinal-manipulation-red-flags-a-comprehensive-review/

MayoClinic, "Chiropractic adjustment," http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/chiropractic-adjustment/basics/risks/prc-20013239

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