What Is The Difference Between A Physical Therapist and a Chiropractor?

By Kateri Kane, PT, DPT

Despite physical therapy’s long history formally dating back to the 1910’s, most people do not truly know what a PT can do or how they are different from other health care professionals.  One particular profession that seems to constantly be confused with PT is the chiropractic field.  This blog will shed some light on the difference between a physical therapist and a chiropractor.

According to the PA Chiropractic Practice Act, the term chiropractic refers to “a branch of the healing arts dealing with the relationship between the articulations of the vertebral column, as well as other articulations, and the neuro-musculo-skeletal system and the role of these relationships in the restoration and maintenance of health.”  The full Pennsylvania definition can be viewed here.  Different states have different scopes of practice, which means that practitioners in some states can perform more or less treatment tasks than those from another state.  Chiropractors can perform “manipulations” to treat musculoskeletal conditions in all 50 states.  Other treatment methods such as modalities, myofascial work, acupuncture, and nutritional therapy vary from state to state.

Physical Therapy is defined as, “Rehabilitation concerned with restoration of function and prevention of disabilities following disease, injury, or loss of body part. The therapeutic properties of exercise, heat, cold, electricity, ultraviolet, and massage are used to improve circulation, strengthen muscles, encourage return of motion, and train or retrain an individual to perform the activities of daily living,” according to Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary.  The PT scope of practice covers “examining (history, system review and tests and measures) individuals with impairment, functional limitation, and disability or other health-related conditions in order to determine a diagnosis, prognosis, and intervention… alleviating impairment and functional limitation by designing, implementing, and modifying therapeutic interventions… preventing injury, impairment, functional limitation, and disability, including the promotion and maintenance of health, wellness, fitness, and quality of life in all age populations… engaging in consultation, education, and research.”  There are too many specific tests and measures as well as therapeutic interventions that a PT can do in order to list them all in this blog, but a list can be viewed here and the specific Pennsylvania scope of practice can be viewed here.

There has been some contention between the chiropractic and physical therapy professions due to overlap in treatment techniques between the two.  According to PA statutes, “Chiropractors cannot advertise or hold themselves out as being able to practice physical therapy unless they are licensed as physical therapists pursuant to the PA Physical Therapy Practice Act”, though chiropractors are licensed to practice chiropractic procedures and may be certified to perform adjunctive procedures, many of which are also performed by physical therapists.  Exercise which is a mainstay of physical therapy treatment is not typically part of the chiropractic care.  In PA, the respective practice acts state that physical therapists perform mobilizations or passive movements of joints, and chiropractors perform manipulations or adjustments which are a form of mobilization in which the speed and magnitude of the motion is such that the patient cannot stop the movement.

The primary area of overlap between the professions is in the orthopedic and manual therapy realm with treatment of the spine.  Physical therapists treat many injuries and ailments of the body that do not have any overlap with the chiropractic field as well.  The important thing to note is that there are significant differences between the two professions.  For a clearer understanding of the differences, you can read over the PA chiropractic and physical therapy practice acts.  If you have any questions on this topic or any others in which you are interested, feel free to leave any questions, comments, or suggestions. Thank you for reading and stay active.




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