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Chiropractic vs. Physical Therapy: What’s the Difference?

Northeast student observing a replica of a human spine

As you prepare to earn a graduate degree in healthcare, you may be wondering: should I become a chiropractor or a physical therapist? What's the difference, and which is a better fit for my career goals? We can help unpack the differences between the two professions, offer some advice for how to choose, and highlight some of the specialties you can focus on when deciding to earn your Doctor of Chiropractic degree at Northeast College of Health Sciences.

Explore Chiropractic Program

Being a Chiropractor

Chiropractic care focuses on all things neuromusculoskeletal — specifically, diagnosis and treatment of mechanical disorders of the spine and joints. Chiropractors work with their patients to assess their overall health status through physical exams; analysis of spine and extremity joint health, posture, and neurologic health; proper nutrition to support optimal health; teaching patients how to reduce and better handle stress; tests, including x-rays; neuromusculoskeletal therapy; and much more. By considering the patient's full-body health and improving joint motion in spinal and other joints over the course of multiple visits, chiropractors often use hands-on means to alleviate pain and improve health without patients needing to rely on medication or pursue surgeries. As well, chiropractors also sometimes use tools such as ultrasound, electrical muscle stimulation, laser therapy and more to treat their patients.

Being a Physical Therapist

While chiropractic work is more focused on the whole person (addressing not just neuromusculoskeletal health but also how to foster optimal health through diet and nutrition, exercise, and stress management), physical therapy is focused more on joint function alone. Physical therapists guide their patients to primarily adjust movement and recommend targeted exercises the patient can do independently to work towards healing. Treatment with a physical therapist can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, with an at-home exercise routine to accompany the PT appointments. Like chiropractors, physical therapists can also work with ultrasound, electrical muscle stimulation, laser therapy and more as treatment options.

How to Decide Which Career is for You

When deciding which career -- chiropractor or physical therapist -- is the right one for you, there are several factors to consider. Top chiropractic degree programs provide a well-rounded, science-based education that includes courses in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and neuroscience, as well as extensive hands-on technique practice and clinical experience.

NYCC students working together tat the campus library

Because of their advanced training, in most states chiropractors have the authority to make diagnoses and prepare treatment plans. Increasingly, chiropractors work as part of integrated healthcare teams, in partnership with other healthcare practitioners to diagnose and treat the whole patient. Many chiropractors also choose to ultimately build their own practices, which provides them a great deal of autonomy and increased flexibility in terms of work hours and work environment.

Physical therapists often work as employees at healthcare organizations such as hospitals, residential care centers or clinics; as such, they do not need to invest their own money into establishing an independent business, but often are not able to enjoy the independence that chiropractors so highly value.

Chiropractic care is generally very accessible to all who need it as in most cases it does not require a medical referral. Physical therapy services, on the other hand, are more likely to require a referral by a medical professional and approval through insurance. Chiropractic care is in high regular demand from patients seeking affordable and effective means of reducing pain and spine and joint issues.

Find Your Specialty

Physical therapists can specialize their practice in a limited number of areas; however, if you plan to become a chiropractor, there are numerous specializations on which you can focus. Passionate about athletics? You can build your career around sports and human performance chiropractic support. Enjoy working with children and adolescents? Consider focusing on pediatric chiropractic. There are so many specializations to explore: rehabilitation, pain management, diagnostic imaging, workplace ergonomics, technique development and research, chiropractic orthopedics, geriatrics -- even veterinary chiropractic work!

At Northeast, we'll help you build a career around the area of healthcare that meets your passion. Ready for the next step? Download our guide so you can prepare for chiropractic college.

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