Chiropractor vs. Physical Therapist

Chiropractors and physical therapists (PTs) are two key players in the practice of treating chronic pain that may or may not be associated with injuries. Chiropractors and physical therapists are tasked with improving the flexibility, coordination and range of mobility in their patients. Working across the lifespan, physical therapists and chiropractors evaluate their patients’ needs and develop plans of care accordingly. 

While improving a patient’s quality of life is a shared goal, physical therapists and chiropractors differ in a number of ways. For example, physical therapy—sometimes referred to as physiotherapy—deals with pain and injury through prescribed exercise and preventive care, while chiropractic treatment focuses on adjustments to the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. 

When managing lower back pain, joint pain and other forms of chronic pain, it is important to seek the correct professional treatment to help you heal and to prevent further damage.  

It is equally important for individuals considering a career in physical therapy or chiropractic practice to take note of the similarities and differences between these two professions before pursuing an education program.

Difference Between Chiropractor and Physical Therapist

How can you tell these two types of health care providers apart? Chiropractors and physical therapists often direct their attention to the same parts of the body, but one of the main differences between them is the different methods they use to treat a range of health conditions.

Chiropractic care involves the diagnosis and treatment of problems of the musculoskeletal and nervous system, which includes nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons. Patients most often seek treatment for conditions such as back pain, neck pain, headaches, and pain in arm and leg joints, according to the American Chiropractic Association. Chiropractors may use a variety of procedures to treat these conditions and to improve overall body alignment. Methods include massage therapy, rehabilitative exercise, and spinal adjustments and manipulations.

Physical therapy, on the other hand, focuses on helping injured or ill patients improve mobility, flexibility, strength and function and manage their pain through hands-on therapy-prescribed exercises and the use of special equipment. Physical therapy patients may seek preventative treatment to maintain mobility and address the effects of aging, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Exercise; physical training in functional movement; and special movements of joints, muscles and other soft tissues are just a few of the treatment methods used by physical therapists.

Another key difference between a chiropractor and physical therapist is the formal education they receive. Both professionals must earn a doctoral degree to become licensed practitioners, but the path to earn either one of those degrees differs. The licensure process is different, too. Aspiring physical therapists are required to take the National Physical Therapy Examination, administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. The National Board of Chiropractic Examiners requires future chiropractors to take a three-part certification exam (with an optional fourth section). Some states may require additional testing.

Chiropractor vs. Physical Therapy Career

When choosing between these two career options, individuals typically pinpoint their focus area of interest. From work environment to range of responsibilities, each professional must find the right fit. Those considering a career in either of these fields should review state requirements to practice in a specific region.

Chiropractor Career Path 

While a chiropractic degree program prepares students to become licensed professionals, there are still opportunities for individuals to gain certification in different specialty areas.

Chiropractor Education Requirements

The minimum educational requirement to sit for the NBCE’s three-part certification exam is a doctor of chiropractic degree. Some DC programs do not require a bachelor’s degree for admission. However, many students complete a bachelor’s program, typically lasting three to four years, since some chiropractic schools require a certain amount of undergraduate coursework hours for admission. State requirements may dictate whether students will need a bachelor’s degree to apply.  

Chiropractic programs take two to four years to complete, followed by a one-year residency.

Chiropractor Specializations and Skills

While chiropractors do hold doctorate degrees, they are not MDs, or doctors of medicine. They do, however, have extensive knowledge in general medicine, physical therapy and neurology. Chiropractors can gain certification in specialty areas such as pediatrics, acupuncture, and radiology through the American Board of Chiropractic Specialties. 

Chiropractors are primarily trained to use spinal adjustments and manipulation to address patients’ needs. Professionals in the chiropractic field are also trained in the diagnostic process. They run tests, take X-rays and perform other evaluations to determine if a chiropractic procedure is appropriate for the patient. Chiropractors may provide advice on health and lifestyle issues, including exercise and nutrition.

Each state defines a chiropractor’s scope of practice differently. For example, most states prohibit chiropractors from prescribing medication to their patients, but a few states, such as New Mexico, grant practitioners limited prescription rights and the dispensation of vitamin supplements.  

Chiropractor Practice and Work Environment

According to the BLS, chiropractors held about 50,300 jobs in 2018. With regards to where chiropractors work, the BLS indicates that 30% were self-employed, while 63% worked in a chiropractic practice. Additionally, a select number of chiropractors are employed by other health care facilities such as a physician’s office or a hospital. Most work full time, possibly including evening hours to accommodate patients, depending on their type of employment.

Physical Therapist Career Path

Licensed practitioners and individuals studying to become physical therapists can shape their careers in a number of ways, from residencies to certification in different specialty care areas.

Physical Therapist Education

To become a physical therapist, an individual must complete a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program, which takes about three years, and pass the national physical therapy exam. An undergraduate degree is required to apply for physical therapy school.

Neuroscience, kinesiology and clinical reasoning are just a few of the content areas DPT students cover. DPT students will spend most of their time in the classroom, but they are required to gain clinical experience.

Following graduation from a DPT program, individuals may apply for a one-year residency to receive additional training and experience in specialty areas of care.

Physical Therapist Specializations and Skills

Physical therapists are trained to provide treatment to patients who have developed functional problems resulting from sprains, strains, fractures, arthritis, amputation, neurological disorders like stroke or cerebral palsy, and other conditions. 

They are able to diagnose a patient’s functions and movements, develop an individualized plan, use exercises to treat pain and increase mobility and educate the patient and their family about the recovery process.

Through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, PTs can gain certification in areas such as pediatrics, women’s health, geriatrics, and cardiovascular and pulmonary.

Physical Therapist Practice and Work Environment

Although some work in hospitals, more than 80% of physical therapists practice in other health care settings, according to the American Physical Therapy Association.

Common settings for PT practice include:

  • Outpatient clinics or offices
  • Inpatient rehabilitation facilities
  • Skilled nursing facilities
  • Homes
  • Research centers
  • Schools
  • Hospices
  • Fitness centers
  • Sports training facilities

Chiropractor vs. Physical Therapy Salary

While both professions require similar levels of education and share similarities when it comes to day-to-day practice, the levels of pay vary. In 2018, the BLS compiled salary data for chiropractors by state and salary data for physical therapists by state. The highest-earning chiropractors lived in Rhode Island, while the highest-paid physical therapists were in Nevada (ranked by mean annual wage).

The following data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the annual mean wages of physical therapists and chiropractors by state, as of May 2018.

StatePhysical TherapistsChiropractors
District of Columbia
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

This list of annual mean wages covers Bureau of Labor Statistics data as of 2018.

How Much Does a Physical Therapist Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median physical therapist salary was $87,930 in May 2018. Practitioners working in nursing and residential care facilities earned a median annual wage of $94,010, and those employed by hospitals earned a median annual wage of $89,950. The rate of employment for physical therapists is expected to grow 22% from 2018 to 2028, with much demand coming from the aging baby boomer generation.

How Much Does a Chiropractor Make?

BLS data indicates that the median annual salary in 2018 was $71,410. Chiropractors working in physicians’ offices earned a higher median annual wage of $86,100, while practitioners working in chiropractors’ offices earn a median annual wage of $70,260.

Employment for chiropractors is projected to grow 7% between 2018 and 2028.