Chiropractor vs. Physical Therapist: What’s the Difference?

a woman undergoing physical therapy and chiropractic care

If you sustain an injury or are diagnosed with another sort of medical condition, your doctor may refer you to a chiropractor and/or a physical therapist to help you recover. Both chiropractors and physical therapists are experts in physical recovery and overall wellness maintenance. So, what's the difference between a chiropractor and physical therapist?

When considering the professions of a chiropractor vs physical therapist, it’s helpful to take a look at both the scope of their practice and the pathway to achieving a career in the field. This detailed career guide explains the similarities and differences, career opportunities in each profession to help you make an informed decision for your future career.

Similarities Between Physical Therapy and Chiropractic Care

Since both of these are highly trained healthcare professionals, there are many similarities between a chiropractor vs physical therapist. When it comes to education, both chiropractors and physical therapists are trained at the doctoral level. In addition, both of them must pass a rigorous licensing examination before they are legally allowed to practice.

In terms of what they do, both chiropractors and physical therapists focus on nonsurgical and drug-free treatment modalities. These are often intended to help patients avoid the need for surgery or other intensive interventions. However, these professionals can also work with post-op patients to aid their recovery from surgery. These healthcare providers can use some of the same treatment modalities, such as heat therapy and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), as well as hands-on manual therapy.

Patients don’t only visit a chiropractor or physical therapist for help recovering from an injury or other medical problem; these healthcare providers also offer preventive wellness assistance, including patient education. Chiropractors and physical therapists can provide recommendations for exercises that improve mobility, strength and range of motion.

Athletes may visit chiropractors and physical therapists for injury prevention purposes. Both types of professionals may provide education on proper biomechanics, which can help athletes reduce the risk of an injury. As you can see, there are many similarities between these types of healthcare providers.

Job Responsibilities for Chiropractors vs. Physical Therapists

Now that you’re familiar with the main similarities of these professions, it’s time to take a look at the difference between a chiropractor and physical therapist. A chiropractor focuses primarily on the alignment of the bones and joints, as well as on disorders and injuries of the musculoskeletal system. In contrast, a physical therapist is primarily a movement specialist who evaluates how the whole body functions and moves.

It’s often thought that chiropractors only treat the spine. But in fact, they can evaluate, diagnose and treat disorders and injuries of the entire musculoskeletal and nervous systems. These include the joints, tendons, muscles and nerves.

For example, a chiropractor might treat a car accident victim for whiplash in the neck or an office worker for carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists. Chiropractors can also provide preventive care for pregnant women, treat sports injuries and even relieve headaches that arise from dysfunction of the neck or nervous system.

In contrast, physical therapists treat injuries and conditions of the whole body as they relate to the body’s function, strength and mobility. They focus on restoring the patient to optimal functioning through a comprehensive physical rehabilitation program. For example, a patient might visit a physical therapist for help relearning how to walk after a stroke, moving with a prosthetic limb or strengthening a body part after surgery.

Treatment Modalities of Chiropractors vs. Physical Therapists

To better understand the differences between these healthcare providers, it’s helpful to take a closer look at the treatment modalities they offer. A chiropractor can do the following:

  • Conduct tests, take x-rays and perform physical examinations
  • Assess the patient’s posture and spinal alignment
  • Administer heat and cold therapy to treat pain and promote healing
  • Administer therapeutic ultrasound to improve soft tissue complaints
  • Provide soft tissue mobilization or massage
  • Use spinal traction to reduce nerve pressure
  • Administer electrical nerve stimulation
  • Recommend nutritional improvements and lifestyle changes

Of course, chiropractors also provide what is perhaps the most well-known of chiropractic treatment modalities: the spinal adjustment. Spinal adjustments nudge the vertebrae into their proper positions. This relieves pressure on nearby nerves and facilitates healing.

Like a chiropractor, a physical therapist will also review a patient’s medical history and symptoms. They will then conduct patient assessments, such as by observing how they move or how a certain body part functions. Based on these assessments, the physical therapist will develop a comprehensive physical rehabilitation program designed specifically for that patient. A patient’s rehab program might include any of the following treatment modalities:

  • Passive and active stretches and exercises designed to increase strength, range of motion, flexibility and overall mobility
  • Therapeutic ultrasound
  • Joint mobilization techniques
  • Heat and cold therapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Training for the use of assistive devices, orthotics and prosthetics
  • Kinesiology taping to facilitate muscle function and decrease pain
  • Light therapy for wound healing and the treatment of chronic pain

As you can see, there is some overlap between the treatment modalities of chiropractors and physical therapists. However, the main treatment modality of a physical therapist is the prescribed stretching and exercise program, while the main treatment modality for chiropractors is spinal manipulation.

How To Become a Chiropractor

For both chiropractors and physical therapists, the process of becoming a full-fledged professional can be lengthy. Both of these professionals must earn a professional graduate degree after completing their undergraduate education. If you intend on becoming a chiropractor, it’s a good idea to research chiropractic schools before bachelor’s degree programs.

This is because various chiropractic schools have their own admission requirements. These can get rather specific with regard to the credit hours required in specific subjects. Before you even graduate from high school, it’s best to ensure that a particular bachelor’s degree program will qualify you to apply for admission to chiropractic school.

There is no one universal bachelor’s degree program that all chiropractors must complete. Rather, whichever degree you choose should include credit hours in both life sciences and physical sciences. Life sciences include biology and medicine, whereas physical sciences include chemistry and physics.

There is a four-part test to get a NBCE licensure though. All 50 states either require or accept that candidates take the test.1 The goal of this license give approved professional competency in chiropractic care. 

In addition, you’ll need credit hours in the humanities and social sciences. These could include English, communications and psychology courses. In short, there are many degree possibilities for aspiring chiropractors, including a biology, pre-medicine or exercise science degree. 

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, the next step is to get into an accredited chiropractic school. Chiropractic school requires at least three years of full-time study. Upon successful completion, you will be awarded a Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree.

The curriculum at a chiropractic school is similar to that of medical school. It’s an intensive program consisting of thousands of hours of classroom instruction and laboratory work. It covers topics ranging from biochemistry to clinical neurology to chiropractic techniques. Students gain hands-on clinical experience during the course of their studies.

The final step in becoming a chiropractor is to pass a licensing exam. Each state has its own licensing requirements. However, you can generally expect to take a rigorous exam before being authorized to practice as a chiropractor.

Becoming a Physical Therapist

If you are an aspiring physical therapist, the first step in your career pathway after high school is to earn a bachelor’s degree. As with chiropractors, there is some flexibility regarding the type of bachelor’s degree you should earn. Pre-medicine and other healthcare degrees are acceptable, as is an exercise science degree, which is one of the most popular degree choices for aspiring physical therapists. 

After graduating from your undergraduate degree program, you’ll need to attend a graduate school that offers a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Since each DPT program has its own admission requirements, it’s a good idea to choose a few DPT programs and research their requirements as early as high school. This will allow you to choose an appropriate bachelor’s degree program that fits these requirements.

It’s also important to note that many DPT schools require applicants to demonstrate volunteer or paid experience working under the supervision of a licensed practitioner. Because of this, it’s a good idea to actively pursue internship opportunities while in undergraduate school. The majority of DPT degree programs use the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS), which allows students to complete one application to apply to multiple DPT programs.

Most DPT programs involve three years of full-time study. During your studies, you’ll take a deep dive into topics such as exercise physiology, human anatomy, cellular histology, neuroscience and biomechanics. Like chiropractic school, DPT programs blend classroom instruction with hands-on learning experiences in the lab.

Students will complete clinical rotations. During a clinical rotation, students will work with patients under the close supervision of a licensed physical therapist. They may complete clinical rotations in different specializations, like acute care and orthopedics.

After graduating from a DPT program, aspiring physical therapists must complete the licensing requirements for their state. Once licensed, the professional may then apply to a clinical residency or fellowship program for advanced training in a particular specialization.

Earning Your Exercise Science Degree

Whether you choose to pursue a career as a chiropractor or a physical therapist, your journey will begin with your bachelor’s degree. An exercise science degree is an ideal choice for either of these career pathways because it provides an in-depth look at the body’s biomechanics. The specific curriculum will vary from one school to the next. In general, you can expect to study topics such as the following: 

  • Human anatomy and physiology, with a look at the skeletal, muscular and nervous systems, and how these systems function together
  • Advanced topics in maintaining homeostasis in the human body, including the study of immunity, metabolism, electrolyte balance and the various bodily systems, including the lymphatic, hematologic and cardiovascular systems
  • Evidence-based principles and the application of corrective exercises to eliminate muscle imbalance and restore movement efficiency, including techniques like myofascial release
  • The analysis of human movement and the biomechanics of the bone, joint and skeletal structures
  • The functions of various bodily systems during exercise and how exercise affects the body

An exercise science degree program typically combines classroom instruction with hands-on learning experiences in an exercise science laboratory. Students will learn the fundamental principles of scientific research and the evidence-based application of exercise science.

Chiropractor vs Physical Therapist: Are These Professionals in Demand?

When considering your possible career paths, it’s always a smart idea to determine whether a particular career field is expected to be in demand for the foreseeable future. The good news is that all sorts of healthcare professionals are expected to be in high demand in the coming years. Whether you choose to pursue a career as a chiropractor vs physical therapist, you should find plenty of job openings to explore.

There are a number of factors that are contributing to the strong demand for physical therapists. The U.S. has an aging population, and older individuals are more likely to require physical therapy for mobility-related medical conditions. Physical therapists also work with individuals who have chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes, and these conditions have been increasing in prevalence.

Regardless of whether you’ve chosen to pursue a career as a chiropractor vs physical therapist, you can get your start at Grand Canyon University. The College of Science, Engineering and Technology is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science with an Emphasis in Sports Performance degree program for aspiring bodywork and athletic professionals. Students enjoy an active learning environment within GCU’s cutting-edge exercise science teaching laboratory. 

Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to explore the possibilities as a STEM student at GCU.


1 Retrieved From: National Board of Chiropractic Examiners, About the NBCE, in April 2022 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.