What’s the difference between a physical therapist and a chiropractor?

Dr. LeBauer performs a myofascial leg pull on a patient.

Dr. LeBauer performs a myofascial leg pull on a patient.

If you have this question you are not alone. This is one of the most common questions I receive, especially from people who have never been to both a physical therapist and a chiropractor.

There are many different types and styles of physical therapy and chiropractic treatments. I am not a chiropractor and do not claim to know exactly what chiropractic is. I do know that there are a few different treatment philosophies and approaches that chiropractors use. There seems to be quite a bit of overlap between our professions (as well as other healing and hands-on professions) as both can be called “Doctors”, both help people with pain (typically people with back pain) and both can provide similar types of treatments.

Since I am a physical therapist I can answer the question, what is physical therapy? Physical therapists are experts in movement problems and the treatment of these problems. A movement problem can be as simple as “I have pain when I bend over,” or “I have pain when I turn my head.”  It can be as complicated as a patient who is a recent traumatic amputee with multiple contusions in the intensive care unit or a patient with multiple orthopeadic injuries, or the patient who has been to multiple therapists, physicians and had multiple MRI’s, CT scans and X-rays and still has chronic widespread pain or another type of pain of “unknown” pathological or physical origin.

Physical therapists address movement problems by looking for the cause of thepatient’s symptoms. Increasing the patient’s function (or their ability to perform every day tasks) can be achieved by a treatment program designed to decrease pain, increase joint range of motion and which uses therapeutic exercise, joint mobilization and manipulation, soft tissue mobilization including massage, and myofascial release among others to achieve the treatment goals. Physical therapists use modalities such as hot packs, ice packs, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, therapeutic exercise and do use spinal manipulation and mobilization in their treatments. It is important to note that with a manipulation a “pop” or “crack” is not necessary to achieve a therapeutic result, so don’t necessarily expect that is what you need to achieve your goals. Spinal manipulation, or high velocity low amplitude thrust, is a treatment that physical therapists are extensively trained in and perform, and when applied in a evidence based approach, is very effective. This, alongside soft tissue mobilization and myofascial release can be an effective way to restore function and reduce pain.

Physical therapy its-self is not a modality, or something that is done to a patient, but a profession of people who have the goal to help patients move with less pain and achieve enhanced function. Physical therapist set functional and measurable goals for their patients to achieve by the end of their treatment regimen. In my clinic, I treat 1 patient an hour, using only my hands to provide the treatment that patients cannot do themselves at home and typically see the patient once a week for approximately 3-8 weeks. I find that when addressing the soft tissue restrictions, or muscular and fascial tightness, a patient’s body will often let go and that a minimal amount of pressure is needed for their body to achieve improved motion. I teach my patients how to treat themselves at home along with appropriate therapeutic exercise or modify their current activity/exercise of their choice to achieve the desired result. I also use this opportunity to teach my patients what to do in the future if their symptoms return so they can begin to address the problem by themselves, with the goal of not needing to return to therapy.

I hope this answers the question you are searching for. Please leave a comment below if you have any further questions or would like to shave your experience.

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