For anyone trying to understand a medical record or condition — including patients — it helps to take a look at definitions and how they’re applied.

When chiropractors and physical therapists appear in those records, we often see confusion from clients. How are the professions different? How are they the same? Can they address the same injuries or complaints?

We expect those questions to keep coming as both the number of physical therapists and chiropractors grow, in part, to serve a growing aging population. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of chiropractor jobs will grow by 17 percent through 2024. For physical therapists, it’s a whopping 34 percent. By comparison, average job growth during the same period is forecasted at 7 percent.

Let’s take a look at the definitions of each profession first.

Here’s how the American Chiropractic Association defines chiropractic: “Chiropractic is a healthcare profession that focuses on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system, and the effects of these disorders on general health. Chiropractic care is used most often to treat neuromusculoskeletal complaints.”

Chiropractic therapies mainly consist of pain management through adjustment and manual manipulation. Those therapies could include:

  • soft tissue mobilization
  • joint adjustment
  • electrical stimulation
  • and acupuncture.

And here’s how the American Physical Therapy Association defines physical therapy: “Physical therapists are healthcare professionals who maintain, restore and improve movement, activity and health, enabling individuals of all ages to have optimal functioning and quality of life, while ensuring patient safety and applying evidence to provide efficient and effective care.”

Physical therapists have a much broader base within their systems. Physical therapy isn’t just for pain relief. It’s also critical for rehabilitation focused on restoring functions and preventing disabilities after disease, injury or the loss of a body part.

These practitioners use several techniques to achieve this goal. They include:

  • exercise to strengthen muscles
  • encouraging improved range of motion
  • and retraining individuals to perform activities required for day-to-day living.

Promoting healing – in different ways

While both professions promote healing, it’s important to remember the differences.

The chiropractor focuses on manipulation on the musculoskeletal and spinal system. The physical therapist focuses on maintaining, restoring and improving movement of musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems through strengthening programs.

Most confusion about the difference between chiropractic and physical therapy is a result of how these two very different professions overlap in their treatment of the spine.

Keep this in mind: While a chiropractor remains the King of Spinal Manipulation, the physical therapist is the King of Physical Rehabilitation through exercise, activity modification and muscle strengthening.

Barriers to access

Another significant difference relates to access. Chiropractors are accessible to the general public. Often, a medical referral is required for physical therapy. That referral also might include limits ordered by the physician to the amount of care rendered.

There is some good news for patients on this front. Some states now give patients direct access to physical therapists, boosting patient access.

So, while a goal of both professions – to promote healing – is the same, the treatments can be very different. To fully understand a medical record, it’s critical to understand why the patient went to one – or both – and what relief either may have provided.