Physical Therapy vs. Chiropractic: What’s the Difference?
When managing and treating chronic pain and other chronic conditions, it’s important to seek professional treatment to help improve your condition and prevent further damage. But what kind of specialty should you go to? There are generally two types of therapy that can help you address chronic pain and other chronic conditions in a natural manner: physical therapy and chiropractic care. While these treatment approaches have similarities, they are quite different. In this article, we’ll review the unique benefits of each treatment approach to help you determine which option is best for you and your needs.
How are chiropractic and physical therapy similar?
Both chiropractic and physical therapy are considered complementary treatments in that they are non-invasive and don’t require pharmaceutical or surgical intervention. Additionally, both treatment approaches treat musculoskeletal problems to improve movement in muscles and joints, with the end goal of decreasing pain and improving quality of life. Although they are similar in those ways, the two therapies differ in 1) their treatment methods and techniques and 2) some of the conditions they address.
Let’s take a look at each therapy individually.
What is chiropractic care?
Chiropractic care focuses on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system, and the effects of these disorders on general health. Chiropractors view the body as having an inherent interconnectedness, as well as an ability to heal itself.
Traditional chiropractic assumes that vertebral subluxations (misalignments) put pressure on nerves, causing problems not only in the area around the spine, but also with organs and systems throughout the body.
What techniques are used in chiropractic care?
Chiropractors work with the vertebra, the spinal cord, and nerves. The goal of chiropractic is to reduce pain and other chronic symptoms by making hands-on targeted adjustments (or manipulations) to your spine and joints. This involves applying pressure to your spine or other parts of the body and, in some cases, twisting motions. You may feel pops and cracks during chiropractic adjustments, however, you should not feel any pain.
X-rays are often taken in the initial session to identify subluxations (misalignments) of the spine. Treatments typically last ten to 20 minutes and patients are generally encouraged to schedule treatments over the course of months or a year to maintain spinal alignment and, consequently, the health of the nervous system.
What conditions does chiropractic address?
Chiropractic care is commonly used for several conditions such as:
- Musculoskeletal and nerve pain (Neck, back, shoulder, knee, sciatica, etc.)
- Bulging or herniated discs
- Repetitive strain injuries
- Migraines and tension headaches
- Sports injuries
- Whiplash and other car accident injuries
- Possibly other conditions like anxiety, weakened immune system, asthma, and digestive issues
What is physical therapy?
Physical therapy entails the evaluation, assessment, and treatment of individuals with limitations in functional mobility. Treatment focuses on restoring or maintaining sensory and motor abilities to prevent, reverse, or minimize functional limitations.
What techniques are used in physical therapy?
Physical therapists primarily work with soft tissue, muscles, and the neuromuscular system. Treatment may consist of hands-on soft tissue techniques, joint mobilization or manipulation, therapeutic exercises, and neuromuscular retraining. Practitioners may also use techniques like stretching, taping, heat and ice, and electrical stimulation.
Treatments generally last about 30 minutes. Patients are often prescribed an at-home exercise program that they do on their own in between sessions.
What conditions does physical therapy address?
Physical therapists can treat a wide variety of medical conditions, depending on their specialty. Some common conditions that can benefit from this type of treatment include:
- Musculoskeletal and nerve pain (back pain, rotator cuff tears, TMJ, sciatica, etc.)
- Cardiopulmonary conditions, such as COPD, cystic fibrosis, and post-myocardial infarction
- Hand therapy for conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger
- Neurological conditions such as stroke, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, MS, and traumatic brain injuries
- Pediatric conditions such as developmental delays, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy
- Women’s health and pelvic floor dysfunction, such as urinary incontinence and lymphedema
- Limited range of motion
- Post-operative rehabilitation
Which is better Physical Therapy or Chiropractic?
Neither is better than the other—it just depends on the nature of your condition. For example, physical therapy helps you strengthen your muscles using mobilization techniques, but it won’t fix a bulging disc. For that, you’d need chiropractic care.
The major difference between the professions is that chiropractors use vertebra and joint manipulation, while physical therapists focus on mobilization techniques and neuromuscular retraining. Physical therapists also treat a wider range of conditions than chiropractors.
The bottom line
While the underlying philosophy of each profession may differ, both therapies focus on finding and addressing the underlying cause of the issue naturally. It’s important to mention, however, that many people see a chiropractor or physical therapist alongside more traditional medical treatments. With a skilled chiropractor or physical therapist on your team, you can gently and safely work to increase your mobility, decrease your pain, and improve your quality of life.