Chiropractor or Physical Therapist: What Is the Difference?

chiropractor vs physical therapy

Should I see a physical therapist or chiropractor? Well, that depends somewhat on the reason that you are seeking care. While it is not uncommon to only receive one type of care, each has strengths that complement the other. Both chiropractic and physical therapy use techniques that work to help the body heal itself. So how can we go about choosing a physical therapist or chiropractor?

Weaknesses often stem from whether or not a specific facility will be able to meet your exact care needs. So how can we begin to know which one will best fit our needs? How can we learn to look for a physician that is qualified in their field? Understanding the basics of each type of care may help determine a patient’s personal preferences and care needs.

What is physical therapy? Physical therapy is a series of medical treatments that focus on restoring flexibility, mobility, and strength to parts of the body that may need special attention. Physical therapy focuses on movement impairments and related ailments. Physical therapy centers most often work to help patients with injuries, weaknesses, and recovery from surgery.

Physical therapy, also known as physiotherapy, is a type of medical care that works to treat the patient using techniques that build on one another as mobility increases. Therapies will often begin by restoring range of motion and flexibility and then develop strength as care progresses. Some facilities will have additional services as per their specializations and individual resources.

Physical therapy is often associated with recovering after an injury. Athletic endeavors, car accidents, faulty staircases, and dozens of other life encounters may be the reason for the injury. If an incident is traumatic enough, surgery may be required prior to the start of physical therapy. Physical therapy seeks to restore mobility and function, usually focusing on one or two parts of the body.

Earning a Doctorate of Physical Therapy takes about 7 years. Therapists may choose specializations based on interest and availability. Candidates must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam conducted by the Federation of the State Boards of Physical Therapy. Licensing is handled in the state in which the care will be administered.

Note: Physical therapy and rehabilitation therapy will often be used interchangeably. While the terms are quite similar, it is helpful to note which is meant within the context of any text. Here the terms ‘physical therapy’ will be used to discuss the field of study of physical therapy. The term rehabilitative therapy (or rehabilitative physical therapy) notes care that is designed to use physical therapy practices for the benefit of patients.

What is chiropractic care? Chiropractic care works to reduce pressure within the body, alleviate pain and inflammation, align the spine, and bring healing to the body as a unit. The goal of chiropractic work is to draw a patient’s spine and complete the musculoskeletal system into alignment naturally. Chiropractic care is centered around solving mechanical disorders found throughout the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems.

The process of healing is accomplished through the use of chiropractic adjustments and specialized treatments as needed per a patient’s needs. Decompression, ultrasound, muscle stimulation, exercise instruction, and the inclusion of nutrients may be included in the care of clients.

Neuromuscular system retraining works to help the brain to properly recognize signals that are sent throughout the body, minimizing incorrect pain transmission signals. After an injury has healed, sometimes the body will still think that it needs to communicate pain signals. Chronic pain sufferers may welcome care that offers a way to minimize the pain that should have long since ceased.

The field of chiropractic works not only on the spine but also brings a holistic approach to medical care that incorporates other ailments that patients may experience. Other ailments include asthma, arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraines, and dozens more. Chiropractic patients find that caring for the unseen parts of the body helps ailments that may have prominence in their daily lives. Chiropractic also addresses degenerative and inflammatory pain conditions.

Chiropractic care often includes tasks that are similar to physical therapy. Mobility, strength and safe, healthy movements are on the list for both types of care. Chiropractic takes a more ‘whole-body’ approach and seeks to get at any underlying causes that may have taken part in the reason for medical care.

Chiropractic treatments also work to minimize the risk of the development of chronic pain or re-injury. If an incident (car wreck, sports injury) is known to have caused an injury, the focus includes preventing chronic pain from developing as the injury itself heals. The primary goal here is to prevent pain from returning later. Chronic pain sufferers may be better served through chiropractic care.

Earning a Doctorate of Chiropractic usually takes 6 to 8 years depending on the exact manner of courses. Physicians may choose a specialization based on their own interests and local resources. Candidates must pass the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners requirements. Licensing is required in the individual state in which the candidate will conduct care.

What They Both Have: A Few Similarities

Candidates in both fields of study may choose to include orthopedics, pediatrics, geriatrics, occupational, and other related matters in their work. A chiropractor can specialize in physical therapy, but a physical therapy candidate is not likely to have chiropractic as an option for specialization. Each is required to interact with continued learning after the degree of choice has been acquired.

Misconceptions have centered around the fact that chiropractic largely leaves out the need for medications. Physical therapy’s history has been more closely aligned with traditional medical practices. As a result, physical therapy may have greater associations with the use of medications in some locations. Yet, many physical therapists do seek to avoid the use of medications.

Chiropractic care will only seldom use medication. It is, rather, the knowledge of the body and the manners in which it is meant to function that is used to accomplish the process of healing. Much of the overlap that is found in physical therapy and chiropractic centers around such knowledge.

Techniques are similar due to the fact that both work to heal the same human body make-up. Knowledge and training are similar. Chiropractic tends to go just a bit further into the underlying causes and seeks to heal the body as a unit. Physical therapy often focuses more on individual portions of the body at any one particular time. However, both chiropractic and physical therapy practitioners may prefer to employ a holistic approach to the care they each provide.

Traction, ultrasound, stimulation, exercise instruction, and strength training are a few of the additional care options that may be offered at both types of centers. Each type of facility will likely require a series of visits for care to be complete. Multidisciplinary approaches will vary by location.

Should I See a Chiropractor or Physical Therapist After for Back Pain?

Back pain may be caused by hundreds of actions! Pain may have originated with an injury or incident. Overuse or misuse of muscles is a big contender for causing pain along the spine. Patients must consider what will offer them the greatest level of care for this centralized portion of the body. The majority of movements originate here!

Back pain may begin in one of the following areas:

  • Sacral (area connecting to the pelvis)
  • Lumbar (lower back)
  • Thoracic (upper back)
  • Cervical (neck area, discussed further below)

Spinal decompression therapies are something to look for to alleviate upper and lower back pain. Decompression of the spine works to alleviate painful pressure between the vertebrae. This type of treatment may vary by physical therapy facilities but will nearly always be a part of chiropractic care for back pain.

Spinal manipulation may be done with some physical therapy facilities. A chiropractor will likely offer more direct care to the spine to promote natural healing in the body. Spinal manipulation works to realign portions of the spine naturally – without surgery.

The Alaska Back Pain Protocol is a combined therapy series that diminishes back pain working to eliminate pain altogether. This interwoven care plan includes rehabilitative therapy, chiropractic care, and the DRS System. The results are stunning!

What is the DRS System? The DRS System is an extremely effective, non-surgical form of disc decompression. It is marked as an alternative to back surgery that nullifies the need for recovery time because hospital stays are not necessary. Yes, it works!

Should I See a Chiropractor or Physical Therapist After for Neck Pain?

Much of the care needed for the neck will be directly related to the spinal vertebrae in some manner. Like back pain, neck pain may originate from hundreds of actions or movements. Posture and cervical spinal alignment (C3-C7) will have much to do with the sources of neck pain.

Pressure and pain in the neck area may also lead to headaches for some patients. The neck plays an important role in providing support for the head. A posture that does not allow the neck to remain properly aligned with the head can cause unnecessary pain. Some migraine sufferers may find great benefit in chiropractic care specifically for the cervical spine area (neck).

This modern world of fast-paced and intense work does not always lend well to the concept of caring for the neck properly. Neck pain sufferers may incur pain conditions from activities involved with normal life or workplace activities, or as the result of an impact injury. Once a condition has begun to develop, it may be further aggravated by even the smallest of activities.

As the body ages, conditions may intensify. Therefore, it is essential to seek proper medical assistance in a timely manner when pain conditions develop in any part of the spine. Care early in almost any type of injury will work to rapidly diminish the long-term effects of the condition.

A few of the conditions that lead to neck pain include:

  • Whiplash
  • Inflammatory arthritis
  • Herniated discs
  • Spinal discs showing degeneration
  • Tech Neck

Nerves in the cervical spine will let a patient know when something is not quite right. Seemingly small tasks may quickly become sources of great frustration when neck pain develops. Nerves communicate information throughout the body; therefore, pain may radiate through other portions of the body.

A care provider must be equipped to recognize and safely care for these conditions in a manner relative to the rest of the body. The neck serves the body in a unique way as it works to unite the brain with the trunk and limbs. It is imperative that this portion of the body receives the collaborative care that may be best provided with chiropractic and rehabilitative services.

Should I See a Chiropractor or Physical Therapist for Sciatica?

Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve receives pressure from something else that is happening in the body. This nerve travels from the lower back down through the hip and into the foot. As the longest nerve in the body, the sciatic nerve has the ability to surprise pain sufferers with its sharp and shooting alerts of pain.

Sciatic pain is often generated from one of the following:

  • Herniated discs
  • Subluxations
  • Degenerating discs
  • Stenosis
  • Lumbar disc bulge
  • Piriformis syndrome

The effects of these conditions are best minimized – or even eliminated – through the combination of chiropractic care, rehabilitative care, and DRS treatments. The DRS System (as mentioned above) is a uniquely designed decompression therapy that alleviates pressure between the spinal vertebrae. Specific exercises and stretching techniques may be given by a physical therapist or chiropractor to help minimize sciatic pain.

Should I See a Chiropractor or Physical Therapist for Shoulder Pain?

Shoulder pain sufferers may find that chiropractic care offers far more than they expected. Having one shoulder become unbalanced from the rest of the body can cause misalignment issues in the neck and upper spine. Once one area becomes ‘out of whack,’ nearby joints will often try to compensate for the imbalance.

Over time, this can cause additional injuries that may have been preventable. Care for shoulder pain will usually include some rehabilitation therapy treatments to build strength – as well as chiropractic adjustments to restore alignment. The shoulder joint and adjoining muscles, tendons, and ligaments must be brought back into cooperation with the rest of the body for proper healing.

Should I See a Chiropractor or Physical Therapist After a Car Accident? 

When the term ‘chiropractic’ comes to us in the same sentence as ‘car wreck’ the term ‘lawsuit’ is often included. Whether or not any lawyers have become a part of your experience, the choice will often depend on your needs for care. Once life-threatening injuries have been ruled out, then you can begin to decide between a chiropractor and a physical therapist.

As chiropractic care is slightly geared more toward healing the body as a unit, this may be preferable if multiple injuries have been incurred. Whiplash, back and neck pain and headache pain sufferers may find great benefit in the comprehensive treatment plans that some facilities will offer. Chiropractic services will likely include rehabilitative therapies and will vary based on the severity and origin of a specific patient’s condition.

If you suspect injury due to a car accident, it is best to get it checked out early. This will help with any insurance claims as well as a patient’s own long-term health. Seek a facility that is willing to cooperate with you and any insurance companies that may become involved.

A Growing Appreciation Between Physical Therapists and Chiropractors

If everyone always saw every matter the same, progress would soon slow in any field of study. As we have seen, physical therapy and chiropractic do have many overlapping pieces to their methods of care for patients. A growing sense of cooperation has begun to surface between the two fields of medicine.

This is a great benefit to patients under both kinds of care. Variances between these two fields may help provide the public with a natural form of progression through a continued sense of learning and advancement in the world of medicine. Advanced medical technologies continue to open doors for the health of patients looking for combined care options.

Physicians will sometimes choose a multidisciplinary approach to treating patients. Whether or not exact treatments lend more toward chiropractic care or physical therapy will sometimes depend on a patient’s specific needs, location, and interests. Both styles of care are meant to direct healing within injured and ailing parts of the body.

The two methods of practice are still just as widely different as they are similar. One thing that may be helpful to note is that chiropractic care may often include rehabilitative activities to restore and build strength. Physical therapy might not necessarily be inclined to include direct care centering on alignment on the body as a complete unit.

Specific methods and practices have continued to develop in both fields alongside one another as knowledge and technology have skyrocketed. Much about the skeletal system, muscles, tendons, and ligaments had been under review for many, many years by the time the medical community finally began to recognize the benefits of each. Appreciation for the two styles of care developed separately over time, creating two fields of study.

Chiropractic was a source of study long before its practices became widespread. Treatments have been in use since the late 1800s. While knowledge of the body’s mechanisms is not new to humans, the use of chiropractic care has recently begun to be magnified for its incredible benefits. The field of chiropractic began to gain steam in the late 1980s with the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Physical therapy had also been in use for some time prior to its health benefits were fully recognized. Methods were practiced in small pockets of the globe in the 1800s. Physical rehabilitation practices took on a wider span of usage when Polio began to take its rise in history in the early 1900s.

Chiropractor or Physical Therapist: Where to Land?

If you have access to a facility that can offer both methods of care – like our Better Health Chiropractic clinic in Juneau! Due to the nature of training that both fields may encounter, chiropractors are more likely to take on the additional skills of physical rehabilitation therapies than the reverse. Therefore, you’re generally better off seeing a chiropractor who can do physical therapy type procedures.

One additional benefit of seeing a chiropractor is that a referral is not generally required. Physical therapy will sometimes require a referral. You may wish to combine treatments and receive both types of medical care to further increase care.

Do I Have to Know in Advance What Type of Care I Will Want?

Imagine combining all of these resources into one facility, one place for chiropractic and physical rehabilitation therapy needs. A single facility that can help you with insurance paperworkand the need for insurance in the first place! The need for care may be the result of an acute or chronic injury, degenerative in nature, or not yet understood by a pain sufferer.

Better Health Chiropractic and Physical Rehab offers this type of comprehensive care to their patients. Treatments are a combined team-oriented option that brings together the elements of chiropractic care, massage therapy, and physical rehabilitative therapy for uniquely formulated results. Care for all ages is available through Better Health.

You do not have to know in advance which type of care will most benefit you. Let the professionals help you decide. Getting well does not have to be cumbersome. Better Health offers care plans that include chiropractic and physical therapy techniques, practices, and equipment. No need to decide chiropractor or physical therapist – you can opt to have both practices in one location!

Call 1.877.346.5255 today to learn more about comprehensive chiropractic and physical rehabilitative therapy plans in Alaska. Better Health Chiropractic seeks to provide the best possible care options for patients. Therefore, we offer more than just one type of treatment.


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About the Author

Dr. Brent Wells - Anchorage ChiropractorDr. Brent Wells, D.C.

Dr. Brent Wells has been a trusted chiropractor since moving his family from Oregon to Alaska back in 1998 and founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab – B.S. from Univ. of Nevada, Doctorate from Western States Chiropractic College, volunteer for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Foundation, and member of the American Chiropractic Association. As a chiropractor his focus is on family, including his 3 children and wife of 20+ years, his clinics, and ongoing education.