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Physiotherapy Vs. Chiropractic Care

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Selecting the appropriate healthcare strategy for musculoskeletal problems can be a complex task. This blog aims to clarify the differences between physiotherapy and chiropractic care, helping you make an informed decision on the best treatment for your needs. We'll delve into the roles, techniques, and philosophies behind each profession, and tackle some of the frequently asked questions you might be pondering.


What are the Similarities Between Physical Therapy and Chiropractic Care?

When you're grappling with musculoskeletal pain or looking for ways to enhance your overall well-being, you may find yourself choosing between Physical Therapy or Chiropractic Care. Despite seeming distinct, these two healthcare domains share a surprising number of similarities that are worth considering, especially when deciding which route of care to take.


Firstly, both Physical Therapy and Chiropractic Care are firmly rooted in the idea of non-invasive treatment. They prioritize the management of pain and functional improvement without the use of surgical interventions or heavy medications. This focus on natural, non-surgical treatments appeals to those who seek an alternative to more invasive methods.


Another shared aspect between the two is the use of hands-on techniques for treatment. Chiropractors, for instance, are known for their spinal adjustments, which they perform to alleviate a variety of musculoskeletal complaints. Physical therapists, on the other hand, might engage in manual joint mobilizations to help improve your range of motion. Both of these approaches involve a tactile, manual method for treating conditions, albeit in slightly different ways.


Before embarking on a course of treatment, professionals in both disciplines conduct a comprehensive patient assessment. This usually involves collecting an in-depth health history, performing a thorough physical exam, and occasionally, requiring specialized tests like X-rays or MRIs. This step ensures that the root cause of your issues is well-understood, allowing for a more targeted and effective treatment.


Beyond the immediate treatment sessions, both chiropractic care and physical therapy offer holistic wellness plans. These can include recommendations on lifestyle modifications, nutritional advice, and exercise regimens that are tailored to your specific needs, thus aiming to provide a more comprehensive approach to health.


In terms of the conditions they treat, chiropractors and physical therapists often find themselves in overlapping territory. Back pain, neck pain, and other similar musculoskeletal issues are common complaints addressed by both. Though the methods may differ, the end goal is essentially the same: reducing pain and improving function so you can go about your daily activities more comfortably.


Educationally, both are also quite similar. Chiropractors and physical therapists undergo extensive, rigorous training before becoming licensed healthcare professionals. This often involves years of academic study and practical experience, concluded by state or national board examinations.


Lastly, both professions are goal-oriented and often collaborate with other healthcare providers to offer the most comprehensive care possible. Their ultimate aim is to enable you, the patient, to return to your regular activities with as little pain as possible.

In a nutshell, while they may operate under different philosophies and utilize distinct methods, both physical therapy and chiropractic care converge on a core aim: to help you manage pain and improve your quality of life in a non-invasive manner. Understanding these shared facets may make your decision between the two a little less complicated.


What are the Key Differences?

The key differences lie in their treatment approaches, techniques, and philosophies. Physiotherapy is broader in scope and utilizes various treatment modalities, while chiropractic care focuses mainly on spinal adjustments.


What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

A Physical Therapist, often abbreviated as PT, focuses on optimizing your ability to move and function, all while reducing pain to improve your overall quality of life. The goal of PT is to enable you to attain the highest level of movement possible for your daily life activities. Physical therapists evaluate your specific condition, guide you through targeted stretches and exercises, and educate you on ways to stay both active and healthy.

Components of physical therapy may encompass:

  • Assessing your pain levels, flexibility, and range of motion

  • Guided exercises, stretches, or hands-on manipulations to strengthen your physique and improve mobility

  • Education on proper posture and movement techniques to prevent injury or discomfort

  • Employing heat or cold treatments and other methods to alleviate pain

  • Creating a wellness program aimed at boosting your general health

  • Administering wound care

  • Providing treatment in emergency rooms and intensive care units

You might discover that a few sessions with a PT suffice to see improvements in your condition. Conversely, you may require ongoing physical therapy for more sustained relief. Your PT will monitor your progress and develop a treatment plan tailored to your needs.

To practice, PTs must first earn a Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT) and obtain licensure.


Why Use Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy could be a beneficial treatment choice for you if you:


- Suffer from pain associated with movement

- Wish to preserve or improve your movement capabilities

- Experience restricted mobility due to factors like:

  • A mishap

  • Bodily harm

  • Surgical procedures

  • A medical issue

- Aim to gain strength and mitigate the impact of health conditions such as:

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Parkinson's disease

  • Stroke

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

- Physical therapists operate in diverse environments, including:

  • Medical facilities

  • Outpatient clinics or private practices

  • Sports centers

  • Rehab institutions

  • Educational establishments

  • Work environments

  • Residential settings

Are There Different Types of PT?

Certainly. From sports physiotherapy to pediatric physiotherapy, the field is wide-ranging, allowing for specialization in treating specific patient groups or conditions.


What Does a Chiropractor Do?

Chiropractors are healthcare professionals who hold doctoral degrees and are licensed to practice. They employ manual techniques to alleviate discomfort and inflammation by adjusting various parts of the body.


The underlying principle of chiropractic care is the belief that the body has the innate ability to heal itself, given the right interventions by a chiropractor.

Similar to physical therapy, chiropractic treatment avoids the use of medications and surgical procedures. It serves as an alternative that could be considered prior to resorting to more invasive methods.


Focusing primarily on the musculoskeletal and nervous systems, chiropractic care is applicable to a broad range of health issues and suitable for people of all age groups.

During a consultation, a chiropractor may:

  • Conduct a thorough physical examination and potentially order tests to evaluate your symptoms.

  • Perform adjustments or employ methods like spinal manipulation to lessen pain and reduce inflammation.

  • Discuss alternative treatment options.

  • Suggest specific exercises to be done at home or lifestyle changes that could help alleviate pain and inflammation.

Why Use Chiropractic Care?

Chiropractic treatment could be a beneficial choice if you experience:

  • Pain in the back

  • Discomfort in the neck

  • Joint-related pain, such as in the knees, hips, or elbows

  • Headache issues

Education and Training

To enter the field of physiotherapy, one usually undertakes a four-year Bachelor of Physiotherapy (BPT) course that includes a six-month internship or opts for a three-year diploma program. These initial educational paths cover a broad array of topics like exercise therapy, the basics of physiotherapy, clinical training, as well as subjects like physiology and sociology. After completing the undergraduate degree, it's generally recommended to continue with a two-year master's program, such as a Master of Physiotherapy (MPT) or a Postgraduate Diploma in Physiotherapy. These postgraduate studies allow for specialization in areas like sports, orthopedics, and pediatric or geriatric care. Hands-on experience in diverse healthcare settings like hospitals, wellness centers, and gyms is also advisable.


Conversely, to become a chiropractor, one generally starts with a five-year integrated bachelor’s program in chiropractic studies. It's advised to follow this with a four-year master's degree that requires at least 4200 hours of combined classroom, clinical, and laboratory experience. During this period, students delve into subjects like anatomy, microbiology, pathology, physiology, public health, and biochemistry.


The latter part of the program emphasizes hands-on training in spinal adjustments and manipulation techniques. Clinical experience will often focus on diagnosing and treating specific conditions in geriatrics, neurology, and orthopedics. To advance further, one can take exams offered by Chiropractic specialty boards for postdoctoral degrees. To practice independently, chiropractors must obtain a license, which involves passing a mandatory four-part examination conducted by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners.


Techniques and Approaches

Physiotherapy employs a diverse set of techniques and methodologies. After an initial assessment, a physiotherapist usually adopts three primary strategies: educational guidance, movement and exercise routines, and manual manipulation. One significant aspect is the provision of education and advice, which aims to understand the patient's body holistically rather than focusing solely on the problem area. As professionals, they offer care plans based on each individual's daily life. Plans include specific exercises that focus on increasing function and mobility in the either specific body parts or the body as a whole. They may also offer specialized guidance on proper ways of using mobility aids, such as canes, braces or crutches. Physiotherapists offer manual therapy and hands-on soft tissue mobilization to bring relief to areas of pain and tension.


Chiropractic care, on the other hand, primarily targets the musculoskeletal system. Chiropractors work on specific adjustments and manipulation throughout the musculoskeletal system, and most often, the spine. Below are six of the most commonly utilized techniques throughout Chiropractic care, which is tailored to each individual's specific needs.

  • Flexion-distraction - focuses on resolving herniated or misaligned discs and enhancing motion in the spine. This is typically done on the lower spine.

  • Gonstead technique - Also typically focuses on adjustments to the lower back, as well as the pelvis, and is commonly utilized to address pain or stiffness.

  • Spinal manipulation - also known as spinal mobilization, utilizes gentle pressure to joints to increase mobility and reduce tension.

  • Extremity manipulation - focuses on readjusting joints such as shoulder, elbow, hip, knee, ankle, and wrist. This are for joints that are not a part of the spine.

  • Thompson (or drop) technique - this technique utilizes a specialized table that slightly lowers when pressure is applied, resulting in subtle vibrations that minimize pain during spinal adjustments.

  • Activator method - utilizes proper tools for a brief pulse to the treatment area.

Chiropractic Treatment vs. Physiotherapy: Which is Right for You?

Each individual is different. When choosing between providers, the choice between a Chiropractor or Physiotherapist depends on the individual’s specific condition, long and short-term goals, and personal preferences. While both treat the musculoskeletal system, they approach treatment differently. Both specialties offer unique advantages and options. Each individual’s choice will ultimately depend on their specific needs and conditions. Consult with your doctor if you’d like more information on which specialty can offer you the best care.


FAQ

Are Chiropractic and Physiotherapy Treatments Safe?

Yes. When treatment is provided by an experienced and licensed professional, and when given instructions are properly followed, they are safe.


Can Chiropractic and Physiotherapy be Used Together?

Absolutely. Many patients find that having both treatments complements their recovery process.


Can They be Used as an Alternative to Medication or Surgery?

In many cases, yes. Receiving therapy or chiropractic care can frequently prevent unnecessary medications, surgeries or injections.


Are They Able to Diagnose and Treat Medical Conditions?

Yes. When related to the musculoskeletal system, both specialists are able to diagnose and treat various types of conditions.


How are They Different from Each Other?

The main difference lies in the below:

  • Physiotherapists utilize diverse techniques (mentioned above) to address musculoskeletal issues and conditions.

  • Chiropractors also address musculoskeletal issues and conditions, but have a larger emphasis on spinal and total body adjustments.

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