It is not uncommon in the course of a day at our clinic to hear the question, “What is the difference between physical therapy and chiropractic?” In large part, the difference is threefold: philosophy of practice, work environment and third-party reimbursement, commonly known as health insurance. While the history that spawned each profession is quite diverse, the two professions have been on converging paths ever since their individual genesis. I will attempt to bring clarity to the before-stated question. With it, there is sure to be controversy from each side.
What is a Chiropractor?
The American Chiropractic Association defines chiropractic in this manner: “Chiropractic is a health care profession that focuses on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system, and the effects of the these disorders on general health. Chiropractic care is used most often to treat neuromusculoskeletal complaints, including but not limited to back pain, neck pain, pain in the joints of the arms or legs, and headaches. Doctors of chiropractic may also be referred to as chiropractors or chiropractic physicians. They practice a drug-free, hands-on approach to health care that includes patient examination, diagnosis and treatment. Chiropractors have broad diagnostic skills, and are also trained to recommend therapeutic and rehabilitative exercises, as well as to provide nutritional, dietary and lifestyle counseling.”
In 1895, Daniel David Palmer founded the chiropractic profession in Davenport, Iowa. The most common therapeutic procedure performed by doctors of chiropractic is known as “spinal manipulation,” also called the “chiropractic adjustment.” The purpose of manipulation is to restore joint mobility by manually applying a controlled force into joints that have become hypomobile, or restricted in their movement, as a results of a tissue injury. Manipulation, or an adjustment of the affected joint and tissues, restores mobility, thereby alleviating pain and muscle tightness, and allowing tissues to heal.
What is a Physical Therapist?
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) defines physical therapy as: “Physical therapists are health care professionals who maintain, restore, and improve movement, activity, and health enabling individuals of all ages to have optimal functioning and better quality of life, while ensuring patient safety and applying evidence to provide efficient and effective care. In addition, physical therapists are involved in promoting health, wellness, and fitness through risk factor identification and the implementation of services to reduce risk, slow the progression of or prevent functional decline and disability, and enhance participation in chosen life situations.”
The APTA also provides this historical synopsis regarding the genesis of physical therapy as a profession. The need for muscle testing grew dramatically during the polio epidemic in the United States in 1916. During World War I, the American army recognized the need to rehabilitate soldiers. As a result, a special unit of the Army Medical Department developed 15 “reconstruction aide” training programs in 1917 to respond to the need for medical workers with expertise in rehabilitation. The profession of physical therapy, as it was later termed, had begun.
While chiropractic clearly has its historic focus on spinal manipulation, the profession has matured and expanded, creating high-level educational programs, including specialty residencies and fellowships. Chiropractors practice in hospitals, military institutions, universities, professional sports teams, etc. Chiropractors in the 21st century treat more than the spine, to the point that the director of the sports medicine clinics for the United States Olympic Committee is now a chiropractor.
“Physical Therapists are also Doctors”
Physical therapists, like their chiropractic colleagues, have expanded their education to include similar educational programs. They recently included the addition of an academic doctoral degree. They have traditionally worked in hospitals and, by history, the military. Private physical therapy practice, including home physical therapy practice, has expanded greatly in the last 30 years. Physical therapists also work in the professional sports and university settings.
So the bottom line is that chiropractors have a more expansive diagnostic education, while physical therapists have an intervention or therapeutic-based education. While chiropractors can provide services such as rehabilitative exercise and modality treatments, their main form of treatment remains the manipulation. Physical therapists may provide manual therapy-like techniques to their patients. However, therapeutic exercise modalities and activity modification remain the foundation of physical therapy practice.
The two professions have converged to the point that some prominent individuals in each profession have begun to discuss the unthinkable: merger. It would not be out of the question to see the first combined chiropractic-physical therapy program within the next 15–20 years.
Also published on Medium.