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The Differences Between Chiropractic & Physical Therapy

This question, to me, is an interesting one, and I actually love it when this question is posed to me. The reason being is that it gives me a chance to vouch for not only the good practitioners in my profession, but also the good practitioners in the PT profession. Before I even get started, my position on this matter is that I truly believe that if a practitioner is following the current standard of care, you shouldn’t be able to tell if they are a PT or a chiropractor. While that may sound surprising, it will make perfect sense a little bit later when I lay it out.

The Main Similarities

While there are in fact differences between the two professions, mostly stemming from their education and scope of practice, there are actually more similarities between PTs and Chiropractors than one might think. Both groups are extremely educated on the anatomy and physiology of the human body. We both go through extensive training to learn each bone, joint, ligament, muscle, artery, and nerve in the human body. We also learn how those components interact with each other, and how discomfort or pain can be identified at a structural level. We also learn how to ask questions and perform examinations that will most likely lead us down the right path towards getting you better. Some of the differences lie in HOW practitioners go about getting you better. More on this later.

At this point as well, both professions are doctor level status, as experts in the field of musculoskeletal diagnosis and rehab. Another similarity between the two are their opportunities to gain continuing education within their respective fields through board certifications. Whether that be in pediatric care, sports medicine, or neurological rehab, an extra certification may indicate a practitioner’s increased knowledge in the field.

“If a practitioner is following the current standard of care, you shouldn’t be able to tell if they are a PT or a Chiropractor”.

The Main Differences

The differences, while often blown-up in certain circles, are really few and far between. As a caveat, also be aware that individual states have their own laws, which may highlight smaller differences within the two professions. In general, chiropractors spend a decent amount of time in school learning and working on manual therapies, including joint manipulation and soft tissue therapy. Typically, while PT schools are now starting to introduce manipulation into their curriculums, there is less of a focus on it. PTs instead focus more time towards corrective exercise, including in post-operative patients, which is often not covered in most chiropractic schools in much detail.

Another difference is a chiropractor’s ability to order imaging and blood work directly, as well as have the training to interpret your results as they pertain to your condition. Physical therapists will usually refer to an orthopedist or general practitioner when it comes to further testing or imaging. Once they get the reading, they have the training to continue rehab if that is warranted.

When push comes to shove, the bottom line is that if you are dealing with musculoskeletal pain, both chiropractors and physical therapists are well equipped to deal with your condition based on their training. However, as I always say, picking a healthcare professional is a big deal. It is still crucial that you do your homework. Just because most schools prepare these practitioners to go out into the world and be top level providers, doesn’t mean that each office is going to have the same level of care. This brings me back to the point of following the current standard of care.

The world of rehab is currently changing based on the newest research in the field (just like any other profession). It is crucial that practitioners stay up to date with the newest guidelines and techniques. Not only will this increase the chances of you getting better, and getting better quicker, but it will likely help you avoid further issues in the future, and to increase your overall quality of life. If you are seeing any type of rehab specialist, make sure that they are doing the following:

  • Taking a detailed history and performing a thorough examination.

  • Limiting the use of passive therapies (heat, stim, ultrasound) as much as possible.

  • Prioritizing the use of active care and exercise.

  • Taking your goals into account.

  • Trying to get you better in AS FEW visits as possible.

  • Prescribing home care so that you can help yourself!

This short post is by no means all encompassing, and I know that it is bound to anger some people, either because they disagree with something that I have said, or because they have had a personal experience that shows otherwise. But this post was created based on personal experience, PT and chiropractic school curriculums, and the opinions of members of both professions. Hopefully it has helped clear up some of the distinctions! Keep an eye out for a future post where I will describe in detail how to choose a good chiropractor and certain red flags to avoid!

Until next time,

Brett Poniros DC, CSCS

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