Chiropractor vs Physical Therapy: Which to choose, pros and cons of each

Though most of our patients intuitively understand that physical therapists and chiropractors are not the same thing, we find that patients still sometimes wonder which healing discipline would suit their individual needs best: physical therapy vs chiropractor.

In a nutshell:

Chiropractic care primarily focuses on spinal adjustments to improve nervous system function and alleviate pain, while physical therapy utilizes exercises, manual techniques, and education to enhance overall physical well-being and mobility.

In this article, we’ll discuss factors that may sway you one direction or another, and discuss which conditions may best respond to each discipline.

Physical Therapists vs Chiropractors

Though you may understand what physical therapists and chiropractors are different, you may not understand what each one does. Before we discuss the pros and cons of each, let’s lay out exactly what each professional does in their practice:

A chiropractor is a healthcare professional who specializes in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal and nervous system disorders, primarily through manual adjustments:

  • Their primary focus is on spinal manipulations
  • They use precise and controlled techniques to correct spinal misalignments, known as subluxations
  • Chiropractors believe that proper spinal alignment is crucial for overall health, as it can improve the function of the nervous system, alleviate pain, and enhance the body’s ability to heal itself
  • In addition to spinal adjustments, chiropractors may use other hands-on techniques, offer patient education on maintaining proper posture and body mechanics, and create personalized treatment plans to address individual needs and goals

In contrast, a physical therapist is a healthcare professional who will prescribe various movements and modalities to restore strength and improve mobility in the joints they are targeting.

  • They employ evidence-based practices to assess and diagnose a wide range of conditions, develop personalized treatment plans
  • They utilize a variety of techniques, including targeted exercises, manual therapy, and modalities such as heat and cold therapy
  • Physical therapists focus on restoring mobility, strength, and flexibility while alleviating pain and discomfort. They also provide education on proper body mechanics, posture, and exercises for home-based care
  • Physical therapists emphasize functional rehabilitation, injury prevention, and long-term overall well-being

Pros and cons of physical therapy vs chiropractic care

Pros of chiropractic care

Chiropractic offices are widespread, and there’s a chance that a chiropractor or to is within easy driving distance of your house or workplace.

Similar to physical therapists, chiropractors offer a generally holistic, non-invasive form of treatment which can be great for general pain relief. Many people use chiropractors as a form of preventative care.

Over time, you’ll form a relationship with your chiropractor, which can allow for more personalized care.

Cons of chiropractic care

The main con of chiropractic care is that there is a general lack of scientific consensus as to the efficacy of chiropractic care. Many critics argue that more research is needed to establish its usefulness for many conditions.

The other primary con of chiropractic care is that it tends to lead to a long-term commitment to utilize that professional. Whereas a physical therapist or occupational therapist will provide you with a program that you can continue to utilize on your own, it’s unlikely that you’ll be learning to adjust your spine on your own.

For this reason, the long-term commitment and cost of chiropractic care can become burdensome for some patients.

Lastly, any time a professional is adjusting your spine, there is a risk of side effects. Side effects can be anything from a little extra soreness and stiffness, to (in rare cases) more serious issues like herniated disks. We do recommend that if you choose to utilize chiropractic care as part of your wellness plan, that you vet your chiropractor prior to beginning treatment.

Pros of physical therapy

Though we are thoroughly biased, we’ll try to remain as objective as possible as we discuss the benefits of physical therapy.

First, physical therapy is an evidence-based, non-invasive approach with far more scientific consensus behind it. Though experts may disagree regarding particulars (such as which modality should best be used for a certain condition), it’s rare to run into a medical expert who believes that physical therapy doesn’t work.

Because physical therapists take care to perform an expert initial evaluation, your plan of care will be personalized from day one, and you’ll be walked through your exercises, stretches, and mobility drills personally by your physical therapist so that you can continue to perform them in the office and at home as part of your home exercise program.

Physical therapy can treat a wide range of physical musculoskeletal conditions, and we’ll be checking in with you as the weeks go on so that we can eventually send you on your way with an effective maintenance plan to avoid reinjury.

Cons of physical therapy

Some patients find that visiting the physical therapist for 40-60 minutes, three days per week to be difficult, even if it’s only for 3-6 weeks during a typical physical therapy prescription. Compare that to a 15-20 minute weekly visit with a chiropractor, and the time commitment can feel steep.

Additionally, there’s no “free lunch” when it comes to physical therapy: physical therapy works well, as long as you stick with it. Physical therapy is essentially targeted strengthening and mobility work by highly trained professionals (therapists). Though we have certain modalities that can help your physical healing along, the key component is the exercise program that may take weeks or months to truly culminate in a full recovery.

Conditions that respond to physical therapy vs chiropractic

There are certain conditions for which physical therapy would inherently be a more logical option and some for which chiropractic makes a lot of sense.

Though we hinted at it above, we’d like to expand on this point in this section:

Conditions that respond better to physical therapy

In general, physical therapy is the better choice when going through a true rehabilitation process. We’d recommend that you seek physical therapy if you’ve got an immediate injury, condition, or surgery that you’re working to recover from:

  • Post-surgical rehabilitation
  • Orthopedic injuries
  • Neurological conditions
  • Pediatric developmental issues
  • Rehabilitation after trauma (car accidents, sports injuries, etc)

Additionally, physical therapy can be a great choice for certain cardiovascular conditions, respiratory conditions, and pre-and post-natal pelvic floor therapy.

Conditions that may respond well to chiropractic

Since the integrity and function of the spine is the chiropractor’s main focus, chiropractic care can be an excellent choice for:

  • Spinal misalignments
  • Ongoing back or neck pain
  • Headaches / migraines
  • Whiplash
  • Joint pain
  • Spinal stenosis or scoliosis
  • Pregnancy-related discomfort

Note that most of the time, chiropractors typically care for their patients as an ongoing form of treatment. Therefore, it can make an excellent addition to a long-term rehabilitation program.

How to determine whether physical therapy or chiropractic care would be a better option for you

If you’re considering physical therapy, chiropractic care, occupational therapy, kinesiology or any other form of treatment, consulting with a qualified healthcare professional is a great place to start. Both chiropractors and physical therapists are licensed, educated professionals, and many patients have had success using each approach.

In our practice, we offer free consultations for exactly this purpose – to determine whether the pros and cons of physical therapy would be a good fit for your condition.

Ultimately, the best choice for you depends on your individual needs and preferences. Consult with healthcare professionals from both fields to make an informed decision and embark on your journey towards being pain-free and functional.

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