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What is the Difference between a Chiropractor and Physical Therapist?

In Canada Chiropractors and Physical Therapists have very similar scopes of practice. They can both use almost all of the same treatment techniques if they choose to learn them. Common things will include Spinal Manipulation, Exercise, Acupuncture, Various soft tissue techniques like A.R.T, Graston, myfascial release, as well as therapy machines like Ultrasound, TENS, Laser therapy, shockwave therapy, traction, and spinal decompression. Chiropractors can order imaging like X-Rays, CT Scans, MRI’s and diagnostic ultrasound when necessary, which is currently not in the scope of Physical Therapists here.

Because the scopes are so similar here, the differences can boil down to general philosophy and philosophy of practice, but that is a long discussion for another time. We will give a basic overview of some of the differences therapy-wise in this post.

If you are looking for injury treatment, good practitioners in both professions will have a lot in common. Exercise and Manual Therapies have the most supporting evidence. I would make sure you know what type of therapy or treatment is being done, not just the type of practitioner.

You could end up going to a Physical Therapist who only uses Spinal Manipulation and no exercise, or a Chiropractor that uses mostly a spinal decompression machine or any combination of the aforementioned treatment options.

I would rather see an excellent PT than a less than excellent Chiro and vice versa.

One area I would almost exclusively recommend a Physical Therapist for is immediate post surgical rehab. This is an area where most private practice PT’s have good training and experience, whereas only select Chiropractors have experience or expertise in dealing with this. Some do, but it is not the norm. The same would be true for acute injuries. This is a very common area most PT’s should be comfortable with, while I would make sure the Chiropractor you are considering has experience, expertise and the desire to work with these injuries.

One area where certain Chiropractors are more exclusive is non-injury care. Most PT’s will primarily deal with injury/problem rehabilitation and some Chiropractors have a holistic approach including general nutrition, exercise, lifestyle recommendations in addition to treatment that they use to treat patients in a preventative manner.

When researching this post, I learned that PT’s are legally not allowed to offer nutrition advice here in Canada, which a Chiropractor can. All Chiropractors receive training in clinical nutrition, but some use it in practice more than others. If this is something you are interested in I would just ask to see if it is something your particular Chiropractor does.

Everyone has a personal view and practice style and a different set of eyes is often useful. I would recommend choosing individuals you like, trust, and who are knowledgeable and experienced with your situation vs. choosing solely based on their profession.

The professions are also not mutually exclusive. It is often helpful to see both and have your treatment co-managed. In this case I would find two people who are happy to do so and will work together to complement each other. It is not a fight (or at least it shouldn’t be in our opinion). It doesn’t have to be Chiro vs. Physio, it can be Chiro and Physio. We are not ultimate fighting each other.

Thanks again to Kendra Hatch, MSc PT for helping put this together.

Be Well,

Tyler Fix, D.C.