Physical therapy and chiropractic care share a lot of the same benefits.
Actually, they can help manage pain, recover from injury, and improve your quality of life.
With that said, they also have unique differences.
For instance, a physical therapist is usually best for recovering from a ligament tear.
However, a chiropractor is often better for dealing with chronic back pain.
At the same time, physical therapy and chiropractic care can work together to take your health to the next level.
Here’s how to find the best treatment for you.
Benefits of Chiropractic Care vs. Physical Therapy
Chiropractic Care Health Benefits
Loosens tight muscles and improves muscle contraction
Improves joint mobility
Speeds recovery from injury
Decreases joints wear and tear
Reduces joint inflammation
Improves athletic performance
Decreases lower back pain (1)
Improves nervous system function
Avoid unnecessary surgery
Enhances quality of life
Physical Therapy Health Benefits
Loosens tight muscles and improves muscle contraction
Speeds recovery from injury, like ACL tears (2)
Rehab for strokes and other neurological conditions
Decreases joint wear and tear
Reduces joint inflammation
Improves athletic performance
Manages diabetic neuropathy
Avoids unnecessary surgery
Manages heart and lung-related issues
As you can see, chiropractic care and physical therapy share a lot of the same benefits.
The main difference is that chiropractic focuses mostly on the joints, whereas physical therapy treats a variety of soft tissue, bone, joint and neurological issues.
Plus, physical therapists are part of mainstream medicine and require more education.
For example, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist following your knee surgery.
In fact, that physical therapist may even work directly out of the same hospital.
Chiropractors, on the other hand, are considered alternative medicine and do not typically work with mainstream doctors.
What Do Physical Therapists Do?
Physical therapists guide you through exercises that strengthen the body and prevent further injury.
More often than not, you’ll be asked to do the exercises at home as well.
Additionally, treatments vary greatly depending on the patient.
Therefore, your physical therapist will evaluate you, put together a treatment plan, and record your progress.
Common physical therapy treatments include:
Therapeutic Exercise: Exercises to strengthen and help you recover faster.
Manual Therapy: Manual therapy can involve joint mobilizations, myofascial release, stretching, and much more.
Soft Tissue Massage: Massage techniques can help break apart scar tissue and loosen the muscles.
Neuromuscular Re-education: When you’re injured for a long period of time, your muscles can slowly forget how to move. During this time, the surrounding nerves can also become damaged. Neuromuscular re-education involves strength, balance, and coordination exercises that re-train the body and brain on how to move.
Joint Mobilizations: A manual technique where the physical therapist moves and stretches the joint.
Spinal stabilization: Exercises that train and strengthen the muscles around the spine.
Traction: A type of manipulation used to open stiff joints by stretching them vertically. Used mostly on the neck and lower back.
Biofeedback: Biofeedback therapy places a machine on a specific muscle. The machine shows patients how hard their muscles are firing.
Kinesio-taping: Kinesio-taping is a special taping technique designed to relax and stimulate muscle groups. It’s most helpful for inflammatory joint conditions.
Cold Laser Therapy: A treatment used to promote faster healing for all types of tissues. It penetrates deep into the affected area.
Electrical Stimulation: Different electrical waveforms can be used to decrease pain and swelling, including TENS, Hi-Volt, and pre-modulated.
Ultrasound: Penetrating sound waves stimulate circulation and help with soft tissue healing.
Hot & cold therapy: Alternating between hot and cold packs can increase circulation and minimize pain after physical therapy treatment.
Water Therapy: Pool therapy allows patients to exercise without the impact of gravity. It can be helpful with lower body surgery, arthritis, back pain, and balance problems.
Dry Needling: Fine needles are inserted into trigger points in the ligaments, tendons, and muscles.
What Do Chiropractors Do?
Chiropractors use their hands to manipulate the joints and make chiropractic adjustments.
As such, a chiropractic adjustment is a controlled force applied to the joint.
Ultimately, chiropractic treatment leads to changes that affect the nervous system and tissues throughout the body.
Oftentimes, chiropractors use tools to assist in spinal manipulation and pain relief.
Common chiropractic treatments include:
Spinal manipulation: Spinal manipulation involves quick joint adjustments, usually performed with a chiropractor’s hands.
Spinal mobilization: spinal mobilization is a gentler form of spinal manipulation that uses the joint’s full range of motion.
Cervical traction: Cervical traction stretches the spine vertically above the head to relieve neck, shoulder, back, and arm pain.
Electrical nerve stimulator: Some chiropractors use what is called a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS). A TENS unit sends low-voltage pulses to provide relief.
Patient education: Chiropractors educate their patients on proper posture, body mechanics, and exercises they can do at home to improve mobility and relieve pain.
Types of Physical Therapists
There are several different types of physical therapists.
As such, each specializes in certain treatments and techniques.
Here’s how to tell which type of physical therapist is right for you:
Orthopedic Physical Therapists
Orthopedic physical therapists diagnose and treat musculoskeletal disorders.
Furthermore, they’re traditionally what comes to mind when you think of a physical therapist.
If you’re recovering from a knee injury, for example, you’d see an orthopedic physical therapist.
Here are a few of the conditions that ortho PTs are trained to treat:
Fractures and sprains
Ortho PTs use treatments like strength training, hot and cold packs, and electrical stimulation.
In general, anyone with an injury or disease that affects the tendons, ligaments, muscles, or bones would want to see an ortho PT.
If this sounds like you, they’ll be able to show you the best exercises to speed recovery.
Neurological Physical Therapy
Neurological physical therapists work with patients who have a neurological disorder, such as:
Cerebral palsy (4)
Traumatic brain injury
Hence, they treat problems like poor balance, difficulty walking, and coping with blurry vision.
Ultimately, the goal of treatment is to give you back your independence.
Pediatric Physical Therapy
Pediatric physical therapists help kids heal from injuries, diseases, and disorders that affect the muscles, bones, and joints.
Some of the most common disorders they treat are:
Developmental delays, like down syndrome (5)
Psychiatric issues, like schizophrenia (6)
In general, they focus on issues like balance, coordination, strength, endurance, and sensory processing.
Geriatric Physical Therapy
Geriatric physical therapists help the elderly stay strong and age gracefully.
It’s normal to lose some strength and function as you get older, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop doing the things you love.
Some of the most common conditions they deal with are:
Hip and joint replacement
Your geriatric PT will create an individualized program to reduce pain and help you get around easier.
Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehab
Cardiovascular and pulmonary rehab therapists deal with patients recovering from heart surgery and other similar surgeries.
These types of operations are no joke, and rehab can be difficult.
In the end, you want to work out just hard enough to speed recovery but not so hard that you strain the heart.
Treatments include light exercise and stretching.
Want more help picking the best physical therapist for you?
You can learn more about the different types of physical therapists at the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). (7)
Types of Chiropractors
Believe it or not, not all chiropractors are the same.
Some approach joint care with different philosophies and techniques.
In general, there are two main types of chiropractors:
Traditional wellness chiropractors who work on structural corrections and subluxations
Musculoskeletal chiropractors who focus on relieving specific symptoms
Let’s take a closer look at each type of chiropractor so that you can pick the right one:
Traditional Wellness Chiropractors
Traditional wellness chiropractors tend to look at your health from a broader perspective.
Generally, their treatments focus on straightening misaligned vertebrae called subluxations.
If undealt with, subluxations can cause pain and interfere with nerve signals.
Ultimately, their goal is to help you feel better by removing nerve interference.
At the same time, you’ll see your posture improve.
Most likely, you’ll also be asked to do exercises at home to improve your posture.
When it’s all said and done, benefits can include:
Better breathing and lung capacity
Reduced spinal pain
Better posture (8)
Lower blood pressure
Since subluxations can start gradually, you may have spinal issues and not even know it.
Symptom Relief Chiropractors
Symptom relief chiropractors focus mostly on treating specific problems, like back pain and headaches.
For instance, if you’ve had neck pain since your car accident, you might see a symptom relief chiropractor to fully recover.
Your chiro will perform classic spinal manipulations to decompress the joints, improve mobility, and reduce pain.
At the same time, they often have a bigger bag of tricks, including:
The number of treatments usually depends on how severe your symptoms are.
With that said, it’s important to look at chiropractic care as a long-term solution.
Simply treating symptoms without looking at the whole body can cause unnecessary wear and tear.
You may feel better initially, but the symptoms return over time.
First Physical Therapy Session: What to Expect?
Are you ready for your first physical therapy treatment?!
Here’s what to expect:
At your first therapy session, your physical therapist will start by assessing your needs.
They’ll ask you questions about your symptoms, like how hard it is to do daily tasks, your medical history, and sleep quality.
Next, you’ll perform a few tests to establish a baseline.
Depending on your symptoms, your PT will test your:
How well you reach, bend and climb stairs
Next, they’ll put together a treatment plan.
Ultimately, your treatment comes down to your personal goals.
For example, if you want to be able to play tennis again, it’s important to make your injured knee extra stable.
After all, physical therapy is really about getting back to the activities you love.
Keep in mind that every patient is different and some may need more sessions than others.
If you’re recovering from serious injury, the first session can be quite painful.
In fact, doctors often recommend taking a low dose of prescription pain meds before your first PT session.
Without drugs, the pain can be too great to do the necessary exercises.
First Chiropractic Treatment: What to Expect?
Are you ready for your first chiropractic treatment?!
Before coming in, you’ll be asked to fill out a form about your medical history and symptoms, including:
Are there any ongoing medical issues?
When did the pain start?
Are your symptoms due to an injury?
Do any activities make the pain worse?
How would you describe the pain?
Does the pain come and go or is it consistent?
The in-office visit usually starts by going over your answers to these questions.
Then it’ll be time for your first chiropractic exam.
Your First Chiropractic Exam
The purpose of your first exam is to get a baseline of your body mechanics.
This way you can be sure that you’re making progress over the course of several treatments.
A chiropractic exam includes general vitals, as well as orthopedic and neurological tests.
Your chiropractor will assess things like:
Range of motion
Neurological response and reflexes
Based on the results of the exam and medical history, your chiro may want to look a little deeper.
If that’s the case, they’ll take an x-ray to see what’s going on underneath.
If you have a history of spinal fusion from spondyloarthritis or a similar condition, they’ll probably want to take an x-ray.
Other conditions, like scoliosis and recent trauma, also apply.
Due to the risks of radiation exposure, the chiro will only take an x-ray if it’s absolutely necessary.
Conditions that involve soft tissues, for example, would not require an x-ray.
In general, issues like torn muscles, slipped discs or nerve compression don’t need an x-ray.
In that case, your chiro might order an MRI scan from another facility in order to get a closer look.
Your First Diagnosis
When it’s all said and done, your chiropractor should have a good idea of what they’re up against.
At this point, they’re fully aware of extra hurdles in the way and how to overcome them.
It’s also possible that they may determine your symptoms can’t be treated by chiropractic care.
For example, pain caused by tumors, fractures, and infections require a conventional doctor.
With that said, a lack of specific symptoms doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from chiropractic care.
After all, traditional wellness chiropractors regularly help people stay symptom-free.
Your First Chiropractic Adjustment
Most people find chiropractic adjustments to be quite pleasurable.
If the exam and diagnosis go well, you may have your first adjustment on the initial visit.
Here’s how it will more or less go:
You’ll be asked to lie on the treatment table.
The chiropractor will take the body part being treated and move it through its maximum range of motion.
Next, they’ll make sure you’re relaxed before doing a quick, thrusting motion to make the adjustment.
Expect to hear a popping or cracking sound with each adjustment.
But don’t worry, this is totally normal!
At the same time, a chiropractic adjustment should never be painful.
Depending on your condition, you might also receive hot and cold therapy, massage, or a number of other post-adjustment treatments.
Your chiro may also show you some exercises to do at home.
When it’s all said and done, you should have a diagnosis and a treatment plan.
Which Is Best for You? Chiropractic Care or Physical Therapy?
In general, physical therapy is best for immediate recovery after an injury or surgery.
Chiropractic care, on the other hand, is best-suited for long-term maintenance after the initial healing is complete.
However, you don’t necessarily have to choose between one or the other.
As long as you don’t have an existing condition that prevents chiropractic care, like a bone fracture, you can do both.
With that said, always follow your doctor’s post-surgery recommendations.
If they refer you to an orthopedic therapist, do it!
Once your doctor agrees that you can handle chiropractic treatment, go for it.
After all, both can enhance your quality of life.
If you have any more questions about physical therapy and chiropractic care, feel free to contact us at Complete Care Health Centers.
We’re happy to answer any questions you may have.