Many patients coming to physical therapy have at some point considered going to, or have been to, a chiropractor. Physical therapists and chiropractors often treat similar conditions and areas of the body, leading patients to wonder, “What’s the difference between a physical therapist and a chiropractor?” While chiropractors and physical therapists treat and even co-treat many of the same conditions, they both offer unique perspectives on the focus and methods to reach a positive outcome for clients. Below is a quick examination of the differences in training, focus, and treatment offered by chiropractors and physical therapists. Understanding what your healthcare provider can offer makes you a much more informed advocate for your own health!
Chiropractic means “to be done by hand,” which is an accurate representation of this field’s focus. Chiropractic care emphasizes diagnosis and treatment of mechanical disorders of the spine and joints, with a particular focus on how the joints can influence the nervous system and overall body alignment. The chiropractic field was first established in the 1890s with a focus on using spinal manipulation and joint adjustment to avoid reliance on other forms of medical intervention. This emphasis on use of more conservative methods of treatment rather than reliance on medication or more invasive procedures continues to be a primary focus of the chiropractic field and is one of the reasons it’s attractive to many patients! To become a chiropractor, a student must complete a Bachelor’s degree, attend an accredited chiropractic program and receive a Doctor of Chiropractic degree, and then pass a certification exam to be able to receive licensure. Depending on how recently they were licensed and their status, chiropractors in Oregon are required to complete anywhere from 6 to 20 hours of continuing education annually. The mission statement of the American Chiropractic Association is: “To inspire and empower our members to elevate the health and wellness of their communities,” and their vision statement is: “The American Chiropractic Association is leading a modern movement of chiropractic care based on higher standards and a focus on patient outcomes.”
Physical therapy can mean something different to each patient because, similar to MDs, the field is split into many different medical specialties. In general, physical therapists embrace the description of “the movement specialists,” paying close attention to how the body moves and functions as a whole. Because of this, physical therapists perform both hands-on, “manual” therapy (which ranges from soft tissue work to adjustments or manipulations that you might receive from a chiropractor), as well as prescribe exercises and neuromuscular education to encourage independent healing and empowerment to self-manage symptoms. This field grew out of the many nurses who helped rehabilitate soldiers following World War I. This filled a gap in the medical field that gave individuals who would have been unable to walk or function independently a chance to lead a fulfilling life with the maximum amount of function. Currently, to become a physical therapist one must complete a Bachelor’s degree, attend an accredited physical therapy program and receive their Doctorate of Physical Therapy, and pass a licensing exam. Additionally, many physical therapists choose to specialize in a specific field, often going through residency programs or participating in fellowships to receive several years of additional training in a particular field. In Oregon, physical therapists are required to complete 24 hours of continuing education every 2 years. The mission statement of the American Physical Therapy Association is: “Building a community that advances the profession of physical therapy to improve the health of society,” and the vision statement is: “Transforming society by optimizing movement to improve the human experience.”
Being familiar with your health care providers and what they are able to offer is a great way to advocate for your own health! While both physical therapists and chiropractors offer an alternative to more invasive procedures, they also offer a wide variety of other healthcare options and interventions. Feel free to ask more about what your healthcare provider can do for you. You might be surprised!