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There’s a lot of overlap between chiropractors and physical therapists. They pursue similar goals. They use many of the same techniques. They share a holistic approach to treatment.
Doctors in both fields report that nearly every patient who walks in the door asks, “What’s the difference?” Physical Therapy Versus Chiropractic
For students who want to pursue a career in treating pain and injury, the question becomes even more pressing. Understanding the difference between physical therapy and chiropractic care can be a key factor in determining which health-care profession is right for you.
Although they share the common goal of treating pain and injuries, the two professions diverge when it comes to their philosophy of practice. You can see both the similarities and differences in their official definitions.
Physical therapists: Health care professionals who help individuals maintain, restore, and improve movement, activity, and functioning, thereby enabling optimal performance and enhancing health, well-being, and quality of life.
Chiropractic: A health care profession that focuses on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system, and the effects of these disorders on general health.
While chiropractors zero in on treating musculoskeletal and nervous system disorders, physical therapy revolves around restoring the patient’s ability to move and function. Chiropractors are concerned with how spinal disorders affect the patient’s overall health; physical therapists are concerned with how problems in the body affect mobility.
While training for chiropractors and physical therapists share some similarities, their scope of practice differs substantially. Physical therapists utilize manual therapy techniques and exercise to treat pain and dysfunction in the muscles and joints. Chiropractors use spinal manipulative therapies to restore and maintain optimal functioning of the muscles, joints and nervous system. Both professionals also use ultrasound, massage, heat therapy, mobilization and exercise to enhance their treatments and improve the comfort and health of their patients.
Doctors of chiropractic are trained in medical diagnosis, which means they can diagnose most medical conditions (depending on state law); however, many choose to limit their diagnostic scope to vertebral subluxations. Physical therapists, on the other hand, typically diagnose only musculoskeletal conditions related to movement and function.
Chiropractors are more accessible to patients than physical therapists are. Patients typically must get a referral from a medical doctor for physical therapy (and the doctor can limit the amount of care), but they can see a chiropractor without a referral.
Chiropractic treatment largely revolves around making spinal adjustments, which often provide quick and dramatic relief. The focus of chiropractic is on correcting spinal subluxations and bringing the neuro-musculoskeletal system back into balance. Physical therapists typically design a program that combines exercise and manual therapies with other forms of treatment. They focus more on long-term strength and flexibility; it may take a week or two to see the effects of treatment.
Despite their similarities, chiropractic and physical therapy are two very different career paths—both in philosophy and practice. However, both are popular choices for aspiring health-care professionals who want to help improve patients’ quality of life.
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