You’ve probably heard people ask about the difference between chiropractic medicine and physical therapy. It’s a common question and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about how the two popular forms of treatment overlap and how they’re different. Sometimes the best place to turn for reliable information on questions like these is official organizations, in this case the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and the American Chiropractic Association (ACA). How do they define their respective professions?

  • APTA: The parent organization for physical therapy in the U.S. defines therapists as “movement experts who optimize the quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education.” APTA’s own definition gets more detailed than that, of course, going on to note that therapists also instruct patients in ways to manage their physical state of well-being in order to produce positive long-term outcomes.

    All states have their own physical therapy licensing procedures, and no one can practice until they’ve passed a course of study that includes at least a college degree in the discipline plus at least one additional year of study or clinical practice. Physical therapists perform examinations on their patients, create a plan of treatment, and then use those treatment modalities to help patients gain better physical function, reduce bodily pain, move about more freely, and lessen physical disability.

    There’s an element of preventive treatment within the physical therapist’s scope of practice as well. That’s why therapists often spend part of their treatment time working up fitness programs of patients who want to avoid injury and live more active lives.
  • ACA: The U.S.-based association explains on the “key facts” page of its website that the profession “focuses on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system, and the effects of these disorders on general health. These disorders include, but are not limited to: back pain, neck pain, pain in the joints of the arms or legs, and headaches.”

    Chiropractors, commonly referred to as DCs, “Doctors of Chiropractic,” perform a full range of patient-oriented health care that utilizes conservative, science-based techniques. Chiropractors examine, diagnose, and treat their patients and possess a comprehensive set of skills, including the ability to offer counseling about lifestyle, nutrition, and diet. Additionally, DCs often recommend exercises that are intended to both rehabilitate and prevent injuries of various kinds.

Similarities and Differences

Technical definitions only offer a glimpse of the many differences and similarities between chiropractic and physical therapy treatment strategies. The one big similarity is that neither physical therapy nor chiropractic is invasive, uses drugs in treating patients, or employs surgery. That’s why you’ll often hear both treatment types called “complementary” medicine; they work alongside other kinds of medical care.

Aside from those key similarities, however, there are many differences in how these to forms of therapy work. Here’s a brief overview of the main areas that make each form of treatment unique:

Chiropractic Medicine:
Chiropractors view the body as a holistic system, in which each part is connected to all other parts. They also believe in the body’s inherent self-healing capabilities. That’s the main reason behind the discipline’s hands-on treatment approach that avoids surgery and other invasive techniques.

Note that chiropractors are able to perform physical therapy techniques when necessary because their medical training includes all major physical therapy treatment modalities. The reverse is not true: physical therapists are not trained to offer chiropractic treatment. This is one reason that many people in the medical profession view physical therapy as being a “subset” of chiropractic treatment.

At the heart of a chiropractic patient assessment, for example, is the search for muscle and spinal misalignment. Chronic pain is often the direct or indirect result of such misalignment because of pressure on nerves and resulting disruptions within the entire central nervous system.

Chiropractors are trained during their four years of medical school to treat hundreds of physical conditions, but the majority of patients they see complain of things like the following:

  • Pain in the lower back, neck, or middle and upper back
  • Sports-related injuries
  • Whiplash
  • Headaches, both stress and migraine
  • Joint pain, including most major forms of arthritis
  • Sciatica, or pain that runs down the legs and originates in the lower back
  • Injuries related to repetitive motion
  • Injuries resulting from vehicle accidents, including whiplash

It’s safe to say that a high percentage of the typical chiropractor’s clientele consists of people who have neck or back pain in one form or another. Some chiropractors take additional training and education coursework in order to offer specialty treatment in areas like nutrition, sports medicine, orthopedics, pediatric medicine, and more.

Physical Therapy:
Physical therapists, often called physiotherapist outside the U.S., tend to work in three major areas: enhancement of mobility or range of motion, alleviating problems related to balance, and restoring a person’s strength back to normal levels. In addition to those key components of practice and treatment, physical therapists work to bring a better overall level of well-being to their clients, boost their fitness, and identify potential health problems in order to avoid future injury or illness.

The heart of most patient treatment is the physical therapy “plan.” These plans are individualized and based on each person’s unique set of symptoms. The goal of making a plan is to bring about long-term relief from pain and injury, as well as to rehabilitate the patient, prevent potential re-injury, and restore overall physical health.

Why do people go to physical therapists? There are lots of reasons, but especially when they seek help with the following situations:

  • All kinds of sports-related injuries
  • Recovery from maladies like strokes, heart attacks, lupus, or multiple sclerosis
  • Decreased mobility, especially in adults of advanced age
  • Recovery from most types of invasive surgery, including back operations, open-heart procedures, knee and foot surgery

As is the the case with chiropractors, physical therapists often decide to specialize byt taking additional training and coursework. Common PT specialties include geriatrics, sports-related treatment, occupational therapy, and general fitness.

How To Choose

At Delaware Integrative Medicine, we believe that people should be in charge of their own health care decisions. If you’re suffering from injury-related pain or are experiencing difficulty moving about as you normally do, our chiropractic physicians can perform a thorough exam and help you decide on the best course of action. We often refer patients out to other kinds of health care providers when appropriate. Within the medical profession, physicians and other highly trained experts consider it their duty to offer the best possible guidance to patients and prospective patients. That means offering honest advice and assessment after initial examinations.

The chiropractic team at Delaware Integrative Medicine has many years of experience in diagnosing and treating pain. We work with every client, both new and established, to help them recover from injury and become well again. That treatment includes not only restorative but also educational components. Our doctors show patients how to create a lifestyle that helps prevent injury and make the body whole again. Give us a call to schedule an appointment. We’re always happy to answer any questions you have about your state or health or our services. Our number is 302-258-8853.