Physical Therapy or Chiropractic Care - Which is Best for You?

Submitted by SharpHealth Team on Friday 8th October 2010
In this article
  • What to expect from a physical therapist.
  • What to expect from a chiropractor.
  • Links to Web sites about both.
Physical Therapy or Chiropractic Care — Which Is Best for You?

Did you hurt your ankle playing basketball? Did you hear something pop in your shoulder? Are you suddenly taking more aspirin for "stress" headaches?

Wanna feel better?

Your first step will always be to see your general physician. He or she may ultimately advise you to see a physical therapist or chiropractor. What’s the difference?

Here's a look:

Physical Therapy

Physical therapists work one on one with patients to emphasize flexibility, endurance, strength and pain management (how to deal with ongoing pain without drugging yourself up). It’s kind of like being treated with the care, detail and attention that professional athletes receive, with a focus on getting you back to activities as quickly as possible — without compromising safety.

In addition to rehabilitation, physical therapists attempt to correct mechanical flaws that lead to injuries. Using a variety of techniques, including back stabilization programs for lower back pain, rotator cuff strengthening exercising programs for shoulder pain, and forearm flexibility and strengthening programs for tennis elbow, patients are taught what their inherent "weaknesses" are so that they can avoid additional injuries in the future.

Treatment courses of this type use a variety of techniques, exercises and equipment, including:

  • steam packs/whirlpool paraffin bath
  • ultrasound/Ionophoresis
  • electrical stimulation (EMS, EGS, interferential current, microcurrent)
  • thera-band/Swiss balls
  • medi-balls
  • deep tissue massage
  • traction/myofascial stretching

But tricks of the trade are never enough. Explains Brian Malecha, P.T., a physical therapist in Minneapolis, "The patient needs to feel that they,
themselves, are a major component in their rehab. With proper initial treatment and education, the patient should be knowledgeable in future prevention and be able to avoid relying solely on the practitioner to resolve further re-occurrences."

Malecha adds, "Physical therapy is about a timely, well-planned recovery and future prevention through hands-on treatment and education."

Chiropractic Care

According to the Conrad Chiropractic Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, chiropractic treatment is defined as the correction of vertebral subluxations (in plain English, the correction spinal column problems) so that your body can function at its peak level — without drugs or surgery. And it’s huge. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of chiropractors is expected to increase by 20% between 2008 and 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Generally, people only associate chiropractic care with back injuries. However, chiropractors also work on necks, hips, leg, ankles, feet and arms and hands. In fact, chiropractic treatment has also helped people suffering from:

  • headaches and backaches
  • low resistance to illness
  • poor concentration
  • fatigue
  • sore joints

Chiropractic treatment offers relief by treating what your practitioner determines is the cause of your condition. In many cases your condition may stem from a problem in the back (your spinal column). Most back conditions and many other conditions are a result of mechanical structural disorders in the vertebra that can affect the joints, muscles, and nervous system. Chiropractic treatment aims to help to reestablish and maintain proper spinal mechanics and thereby promotes improved function.
The effectiveness of chiropractors has been long debated. A 1989 Western Journal of Medicine report showed that patients treated with chiropractic care recovered four times faster than non-chiropractic patients with similar cases. But some physical therapists will argue that chiropractors keep you coming back for more treatment, whether you need it or not.

"Unfortunately, there is this philosophy that chiropractic is a last resort, probably because it was ostracized for so long [in the United States] and there was restriction of trade among the American Medical Association a while back," said Dr. Daniel J. Fedeli, D.C. of The Balancing Center in Chicago.

Editorial Team Note: Chiropractic treatment is widely accepted and fully-integrated into the health care systems of many other countries. For example, the Canadian national health care system includes chiropractic care among the treatment options paid for by the system.

Choosing Your Treatment

Your choice between a physical therapist or chiropractor is largely dependent on the recommendation of your general physician and the type of ailment you have. Got a sports-related injury to your ankle, knees, or any part of your lower body? Your doctor may suggest physical therapy. Physical therapy has also been recommended for patients with shoulder, arm and elbow stiffness and tightening.

If you have a back injury, such as pain from lifting heavy items improperly, poor ergonomics in the workplace, or twisting and turning in awkward positions, your doctor may recommend chiropractic care or a combination of chiropractic care and pain management from a physical therapist.
Of course, there’s always that final factor that may make your decision for you — health insurance coverage (if you have it). The type of treatment, number of visits, percentage of bill coverage and any co-pay is likely to be a determining factor in any budget-conscious SharpMan’s decision.

Be sure to check with your health care provider before seeking treatment to determine what your options are.

Other Tips

Keep your medical in the loop. Most physicians will not discourage a patient who would like to visit physical therapists or chiropractors, but knowing the full picture of your health care regiment — including any chiropractic or physical therapy treatment — will help your personal physician do a better job of treating you. Your physician may also provide you with a useful referral.

Check your practitioner’s credentials. Some SharpMen may be uncomfortable about seeking "medical" treatment from someone without an "M.D." Learning a bit about the academic and technical rigors required of chiropractors and physical therapists may alleviate some of these concerns:

Chiropractors. Doctors of chiropractic ("D.C.") must complete six to seven years of college and post-graduate study to earn a degree from one of the 17 accredited chiropractic colleges in the United States. This includes two years of undergraduate study before chiropractic school. You can call your chiropractor's college to verify that he or she received a chiropractic degree.

Chiropractors must also pass a national exam and obtain a license in the state in which they practice. To find out whether your chiropractor is licensed, contact your state licensing board, the International Chiropractors Association (800-423-4690) or the American Chiropractic Association (800-986-4636).

Physical Therapists. All states require physical therapists to pass a licensure exam after graduating from an accredited physical therapist educational program before they can practice. If you have concerns about the background and education of your physical therapist, view the American Physical Therapy Associations (APTA) ( and contact the person in your state to find out more information. To contact the APTA by phone, call 703-299-3100.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, by 2002 all physical therapist programs seeking accreditation will be required to offer master's degrees and above, in accordance with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

For More Information

Chiropractic Links:

Physical Therapy Links:

This article last updated on Sunday 12th February 2012
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