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What is the Difference: Chiropractic Care and Physical Therapy?

What is the Difference: Chiropractic Care and Physical Therapy?

What is Chiropractic Care?

Chiropractic care is all about detection and correction of spinal subluxations in order to promote a greater expression of life to run freely from the brain to the body. Chiropractors help remove interference to your nervous system so that you can live your life to your fullest potential.

Chiropractic care is a preventive method to health that focuses on wellness rather than disease. Doctors of chiropractic pay close attention to the central nervous system (CNS) that controls all facets of the body. The brain conveys messages through the spinal column across an enormous set-up of spinal nerves to deliver info to every cell, organ, and system of the body.

According to Gray’s Anatomy, the nervous system is the most complicated as well as highly organized of the various systems that make up the human body. The CNS consists of the brain along with the vertebrae. The peripheral nervous system entails a chain of nerves through which the CNS is connected with the various body tissues.   

A subluxation of the vertebral column can impede the body’s normal function and health. In most cases, a subluxation is referred to as a misalignment. Chiropractic care insists that the body has the aptitude to heal itself and sustain good health if there are no subluxations in the spine. Therefore, a healthy nervous system corresponds to a healthy body.

Chiropractic care involves the use of hands-on spinal adjustments as the main tools. With that said, a vertebral adjustment is the use of a precise force to a precise part of the spinal column. The objective of an adjustment is to reestablish normal nerve transmission and help the body to get well on its own.    

Chiropractic care insists on keeping optimum health, naturally, minus the use of surgery or drugs. Instead of treating the signs of disease, manipulative care helps the body to help itself by permitting the body to work at its optimal best. From children to the elderly, chiropractic care can relieve pain and help maintain good health by supporting the immune system.

What is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is a health profession whose primary objective is the promotion of optimal health and function. This objective is achieved through the application of scientific principles to the processes of examination, evaluation, diagnosis, prognosis, and intervention so as to remediate or prevent impairments, disabilities, and functional limitations.

Physical therapy incorporates an area of specialized competence and includes the development of new principles as well as applications to meet existing along with emerging health needs. Other professional activities that serve the purpose of physical therapy are administration, consultation, education, and research.   

Physical therapists alleviate impairments and functional limitations by designing, implementing, and modifying therapeutic interventions. The most popular examples of interventions include functional training, therapeutic exercise, manual therapy techniques, patient-related instructions, and electrotherapeutic modalities.  

Difference between Physical Therapy and Chiropractic Care

The first step to alleviating your pain is to decide on the type of healthcare you are going to seek. To decide wisely, you need to recognize the difference between physical therapy and chiropractic care.

Folks are often confused about the differences between what a physical therapist does and what a chiropractor does. Let’s assume you have a shoulder problem, such as a frozen shoulder or you are not able to move your shoulder as you would want to.

In this situation, most people would go to a physical therapist, and he or she will work on the muscles and ligaments of the shoulder. A physical therapist would probably use ice and heat or perhaps electric muscle stimulation to loosen up the muscle. He or she may even use ultrasound to try to get the shoulder to be less tense or fixated.   

If the shoulder problem does not involve a muscle ligament or a tendon problem, then you are dealing with a spinal issue. Any problems associated with the spinal column are addressed only by a chiropractor. A damaged nerve to the shoulder can cause potential shoulder problems because the nerve controls the muscles, ligaments, and tendons of the shoulder.

There are two cardinal signs that would let you know which type of health care provider you should consult between a chiropractor and a physical therapist. If you go to a physical therapist and the situation is not resolving, and it keeps coming back regardless of the fact that you get some relief. This means you need to go and see a chiropractor.

Treatment Philosophy

Chiropractors and physical therapists take different approaches as far as treating pain and other symptoms go. A chiropractor is mainly concerned with conditions that are associated with the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. He or she is also concerned with the effects of the conditions on the body.

The common conditions that a chiropractor treats are headaches, neck pain, back pain, and sciatica to mention a few. Doctors of chiropractic use hands-on procedures that comprise of examination, diagnosis, and treatment plan. Chiropractors use their diagnostic expertise to recommend rehabilitative and therapeutic tools, including spinal manipulation.

On the other hand, a physical therapist’s treatment philosophy involves evaluation, diagnosis, and provision of treatment to reinstate movement as well as function. This usually includes a range of motion, strength, and balance. A physical therapist would develop a personal rehabilitation program depending on the cause (disease, injury, aging, and environmental factors).


Chiropractors must earn a Doctor of Chiropractic degree and a state license. Doctor of chiropractic programs normally takes six to eight years to complete. Chiropractic education consists of classroom work in anatomy, physiology, biology, and similar subjects. Students also get a controlled clinical training period, in which they train in spinal adjustment, spinal assessment, diagnosis, and techniques.

After graduation, some chiropractors complete postgraduate packages leading to additional credentials and certifications. These packages provide extra training in specialty areas, such as pediatrics and orthopedics. Others may choose to earn a master’s degree in a related topic, such as sports rehabilitation.

To be a qualified physical therapist, one has to earn a Doctorate of Physical Therapist. It involves a seven-year program. The program includes about three thousand five hundred instructional hours followed by four years of undergraduate and three years of physical therapy school. The students are also expected to complete a thirty-week internship. They are also supposed to excel in the National Physical Therapy Exam.

Clinical Expertise

Doctors of chiropractic are masters of spinal manipulation and adjustment, which includes joint adjustment and soft tissue mobilization. A chiropractor would use his or her knowledge of the nervous and musculoskeletal systems to devise exercise regiments and therapeutic modalities to treat the underlying problem, which can be back pain, neck pain and so on.

A chiropractor would use facts to support his or her treatment plan, diagnosis of subluxations, and spinal adjustment. The education of a chiropractor also provides him or her with detailed knowledge of physical therapy techniques, neurology, radiology, and general medicine.

The specific disciplines that chiropractors are well-acquainted with include pediatrics, orthopedics, sports medicine, forensic sciences, radiology, occupational health, nutrition, neurology, internal disorders, and general rehab.

Physical therapists are masters of human movement as well as re-establishment of movement-related procedures. Their basis of knowledge also extends into general medicine and chiropractic care. A physical therapist’s treatment tools mainly involve manual therapy, soft and joint tissue mobilization, muscle coordination, sports performance, neurological rehabilitation, and cardiovascular rehabilitation.

A physical therapist would diagnose functional, musculoskeletal, and movement conditions. The specific disciplines that physical therapists can practice include clinical electrophysiology, pulmonary, cardiovascular, neurology, geriatrics, pediatrics, sports medicine, and orthopedics.

The main treatment difference between a chiropractor and a physical therapist is that a physical therapist empowers a patient to care for him or herself through a home exercise program. On the other hand, a chiropractor may also utilize home exercise for some treatment plans.

Chiropractic Care and Physical Therapy

Chiropractic Physical Therapist
Years of medical school
  • Four to five undergraduate years
  • Five years in chiropractic school
  • One year residency
  • Three academic years for doctor of physical therapy
  • Two years of master’s programs
Internship and residency
  • One year internship
  • No residency needed
  • Thirty weeks of complete internship
  • Residency required
  • Private practice clinics
  • Inpatient or outpatient  
  • They are not considered medical doctors
  • Some states consider them to be healthcare providers
  • Cannot prescribe medication or surgery
  • They are not medical doctors
  • Cannot prescribe medication or surgery
  • Minor surgeries in some states
  • Limited to necrotic tissue
  • Wound care
Treatment techniques used
  • Chiropractic adjustment
  • Pain management
  • Acupuncture
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Joint manipulation
  • Cardiovascular rehab
  • Massage
  • Tissue mobilization
  • Wound care
  • Muscle coordination and performance
  • Sports performance
  • Neurological rehabilitation
  • Pediatrics
  • Orthopedics
  • Sports med
  • Occupational health
  • Forensic sciences
  • Nutrition
  • Neurology
  • Radiology
  • Internal disorder
  • General rehab
  • Orthopedics
  • Sports med
  • Geriatrics
  • Pediatrics
  • Neurology
  • Women’s health
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary

A Cohesion of Chiropractic Care and Physical Therapy

American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) have in the past been to court to determine who can manually manipulate a patient’s spine to correct a misalignment. Physical therapists use manual manipulations, and insurance firms reimburse them for their services.

The scope of practice of chiropractic and physical therapy requires clarification to determine the principles of this specific issue.

According to research, physical therapists may use manipulation techniques if they use a non-specific force and no momentum to correct spinal misalignments. This means that physical therapists cannot use any type of momentum when manipulating a patient simply because forceful manipulation is a chiropractic service.

Chiropractors believe that the realignment of the spine contributes to the health and wellness of the patient. Chiropractic physical therapy uses manipulation to alleviate pain, but physical therapy does not focus on how the spine controls the body and allows the body to naturally heal itself.

The difference in their practices (chiropractors and physical therapists) is determined by their education. Physical therapists, although trained in treating the spine, they are educated in treating the soft tissue and joint manipulation techniques, and not the manipulation of the vertebrae.

In Conclusion

Physical therapy has a record of extensive benefit for a wide range of conditions, whereas chiropractic care addresses the health and function of the spinal column. Physical therapy and chiropractic interventions are possibly very compatible in integrative treatment for musculoskeletal conditions.

Both professions share the goal of empowering patients through coaching and self-care and have a commitment to patient exercise, education, and rehabilitation. The safety, as well as, the popularity of chiropractic and its effectiveness for specific conditions make it a powerful choice in healthcare options.

As a form of primary care, Anchorage patients can consult chiropractors directly without any requirement of medical referral.

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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.