Physical Therapy vs. Chiropractor: Your Best Treatment Options

You’re suffering from aches and pains or injuries: Should you go to a Physical Therapist or a Chiropractor? Sometimes it can be tough to know which one is right for your needs…and sometimes the lines between physical therapy and chiropractic care can be blurred a little. In this article, we will discuss the difference between the two and help you figure out whether you need a physical therapy vs. a Chiropractor, so you can get back to better living!

Physical Therapy vs Chiropractor: Your Best Treatment Options

Physical Therapists and Chiropractors both work with patients suffering from pain caused by an injury or a chronic condition. However, they have different approaches to how they treat their patients.

Physical Therapists focus on restoring mobility and body function for patients who have experienced an injury, have a disease or chronic condition. On the other hand, Chiropractors focus on spinal and musculoskeletal issues and the diagnosis of those issues.

Before going into more detail regarding treatments of physical therapy vs. Chiropractor, there are other differences between the two:


Education programs for becoming a Physical Therapist varies greatly depending on the school and on the requirements of the state. However, all physical therapy programs require a bachelor’s degree and at least 30 weeks of full-time internship during the program. Typically, it takes 7 to 8 years total education requirement before qualifying as a Physical Therapist (PT).

Chiropractors need to go through 5 years of chiropractic school and a 1-year residency requirement after completing an undergraduate degree. Therefore, it will take 10 years to become a Doctor of Chiropractic (DC).

Board Certification

PTs are certified by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). This is a requirement for all US states. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), division of the US Department of Education, accredits the academic programs.

DCs are required to pass the National Board Exams given by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners (NBCE). They are certified by the Chiropractic Board at the State level and Diplomate specialty boards.


PTs specialize in Orthopedics (Generalist Practice), Sports Medicine (Generalist and sports-related), Geriatrics, Pediatrics, Women’s Health, Neurology (SCI, TBI, MS, ALS, CP, Parkinson’s, etc.), Cardiovascular and Pulmonary (COPD, CHF, etc.), and Clinical Electrophysiology.

DCs specialize in Orthopedics, Sports Medicine, Occupational Health, Pediatrics, General Rehab, Internal Disorders, Neurology, Radiology, Nutrition, and Forensic Sciences.

Physical Therapy vs Chiropractor: Who Provides the Best Treatment Options for You?

Let us examine their approaches to treatment for some frequent ailments. 

Physical Therapy vs. Chiropractor for Back Pain

Physical Therapist vs Chiropractor for Back Pain

Physical Therapy

Patients who suffer from most types of lower back pain are often referred to Physical Therapists. They undergo physical therapy for four weeks as an initial nonsurgical treatment option before considering other more aggressive treatments such as back surgery. Physical therapy aims to decrease back pain, increase function, and educate the patient to prevent future back problems via a maintenance program.

Common forms of Physical Therapy:

  • Passive physical therapy (modalities)

Treatment includes heat application, ice packs and electrical stimulation. For example, before exercising and stretching, a heating pad may be applied to warm up the muscles. After stretching and exercise an ice pack may be applied.

  • Active physical therapy

Treatment focuses on specific exercises and stretching. Active exercise is the focus of the physical therapy program for most low back pain treatments.


Chiropractic treatment for back pain may involve one or more manual adjustments in which the chiropractor manipulates the joints, using a controlled, sudden force in order to improve the patient’s range and quality of motion. Nutritional counseling and exercise/rehabilitation are typically incorporated into the treatment program. Chiropractic care aims to restore function and prevent injury in addition to back pain relief.

Physical Therapy vs. Chiropractor for Neck Pain

Physical Therapy vs. Chiropractor for Neck Pain

Physical Therapy

There are times when a doctor refers his/her patients to a physical therapist to help them relieve neck pain and restore movement.

Physical Therapy includes both passive and active treatments.

Passive treatments

  • Deep tissue massage

The physical therapist will use direct pressure and friction to try to release the tension in your ligaments, tendons, and muscles – collectively called, soft tissues.

  • Hot and cold therapy

Heat brings in more blood to the affected area because increased blood flow brings more oxygen and nutrients to that area. Blood is also needed to remove waste byproducts from the neck, and it also helps healing.

Cold therapy slows down circulation and this helps reduce inflammation, pain, and muscle spasms. The physical therapist will alternate between hot and cold therapies.

  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)

This type of treatment can be done at home if the physical therapist thinks it is really necessary. A machine will stimulate the patient’s muscles through variable but safe intensities of electrical current. This treatment helps reduce muscle spasms and may increase the body’s production of endorphins (peptides that activate the body’s opiate receptors, resulting in an analgesic effect.)

  • Traction

This treatment involves stretching and mobilizing the spine so that the patient feels less pain and can move more easily. The physical therapist can do this manually or he/she can use a mechanical traction device.

  • Ultrasound

This treatment increases blood circulation which helps reduce pain, swelling, muscle spasms, cramping, and stiffness. Sound waves are sent deep into the patient’s muscle tissues, creating a gentle heat that regulates circulation and promotes healing.

Active treatments

This type of treatments typically includes different exercises that will help with the patient’s flexibility, strength, stability, and range of motion.

Physical Therapy vs. Chiropractor for Arthritis

Physical Therapy vs. Chiropractic Care for Arthritis

Physical Therapy

A physical therapist will develop an individualized program of exercises that will improve flexibility, strength, coordination, and balance to help the patient achieve optimal physical function. He/she will be taught proper posture and body mechanics for common daily activities to relieve pain and improve function. The patient will be taught how to properly use walkers and/or canes. The physical therapist may also recommend braces and splints to support joints, shoe inserts to help relieve stress on the lower extremities, and hot and cold therapy to ease joint pain and stiffness. The physical therapist may also suggest modifications to the patient’s environment, such as recommending the use of ergonomic chairs, or a cushioned mat in the patient’s kitchen to relieve pain and improve function.


It is important to note that if a patient has joints with active swelling, he/she should not consult a chiropractor because an adjustment could be dangerous. However, chiropractors do offer a number of adjunctive therapies that can help:

  • Ultrasound

When applied to soft tissues and joints, sound waves can produce a massaging effect that can help reduce swelling and ease pain and joint stiffness.

  • Electrotherapy

The tiny electric pulses are not painful. They treat soft tissue injuries by stimulating nerves and muscles.

  • Cold laser

A non-heat-producing laser or light is used to penetrate deep into the tissue to help reduce inflammation.

  • Infrared sauna

Controlled amounts of heat are used in these rooms, to help relieve pain and increase circulation. It’s like having a hot compress warm up your joints from the inside.

All these treatments will not involve touching the arthritic joint itself but treating the surrounding tissues may reduce overall pain significantly.

Still can’t decide between physical therapy vs. chiropractic care?

Both treatments are actually great options for patients suffering from musculoskeletal issues. However, the best way to figure out which is best for you is to talk to a primary care physician in order to get a diagnosis. He/she will recommend a treatment plan which may be a combination of physical therapy and chiropractic care.

If you decide to go for physical therapy treatment or if you have questions about what type of physical therapy treatment is best for your condition, contact Vigor Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation today.