Back Pain: Should You Try Physical Therapy or Chiropractic Care?

April 05, 2019

A male patient gets examined by a physical therapist
Bana Jobe

According to the National Institutes of Health, very few of us are strangers to back pain: The agency estimates that 8 in 10 people will experience it at some point in their lives.

All those aching backs can cause a snowball of hassles (and expenses too): One study from BioMed Central Health Services Research cited back pain as one of the biggest drivers of healthcare costs. But thanks to a diversity of medical professions, there's no shortage of fields to turn to for treatment — from primary care to physical therapy or chiropractic care.

So if you've got back pain, which specialist should you see? Well, it depends.

That might sound like a cop-out answer, but it's not — and here's why: Whether you choose to see a physical therapist or a chiropractor often depends on your needs, your comfort level with certain treatments and how you feel about each profession's philosophy of care. After all, each one offers a similar, but also different, care experience.

What Is a Chiropractor?

Doctors of Chiropractic (DCs) are medical professionals who care for the musculoskeletal and nervous system — often considering how problems with your bones, muscles and nerves can impact your health overall, says the American Chiropractic Association. They're most known for taking that high-level approach when doing adjustments (or "spinal manipulations"), which involve putting pressure on specific joints to relieve pain.

Watch this video from The Joint Chiropractic to learn what it's like to see a chiropractor.

What is a Physical Therapist?

Similarly, physical therapists can help relieve pain and restore mobility — but with a different, more targeted take on the treatment plan. Often helping after an injury or surgery, physical therapists focus on patient education (such as prescribing things like exercise plans) and manual techniques like moving the joints and soft tissue to improve range of motion and pain management, the American Physical Therapy Association says.

Watch this video from Mayo Clinic to learn what it's like to see a physical therapist.

Is There a Difference Between Physical Therapist and Chiropractor Education?

If you're basing your decision off credentials, there's not much of a difference between physical therapist and chiropractor education: Both are required to have substantial training before entering practice. Physical therapists receive a Doctor of Physical Therapy, which is usually a three-year program and often takes place after getting a bachelor's degree. They then have to take a state exam to get their license. A similar story goes for chiropractors, who get a four-year doctoral degree before taking board and state license exams.

Do You Need Physical Therapy or Chiropractic Care?

So if their treatments and credentials are comparable, who should you see to heal your hurting back? Often, it chalks up to personal preferences and how you feel about each kind of specialists' philosophy of care.

Looking back at the BioMed Central Health Services Research study, the majority of people (61 percent) first turn to their medical doctor for help with back pain, followed by chiropractor (28 percent) and both a medical doctor and physical therapist combined (11 percent).

The best thing to do is to try one or the other to see which expert you take to the best. But if the end game is pain relief — and for most people, it is — these tips can help you get started:

See a physical therapist if…

  • You've recently had major surgery that has impacted your range of motion.
  • You're recovering from an injury that restricts your movement or causes you pain.
  • You're an athlete who regularly needs rehabilitative or preventive care.
  • You enjoy the prospect of doing at-home strengthening exercises prescribed in tandem with in-office treatments.

See a chiropractor if…

  • You're interested in getting a spinal adjustment.
  • You frequently get headaches along with back pain that may be the result of nerve irritation.
  • You have intense pain in your leg, which could be from a pinched nerve in your spine.
  • You've got pain primarily in your lower back; spinal adjustments have been shown to be particularly helpful for this kind of pain, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Final Verdict: Either Are Good Options Over Pills

Whether you choose to have physical therapy or chiropractic, know this: Either is a good option over addictive opioids. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends trying drug-free therapies before prescription painkillers. Forgoing the medicine cabinet can help relieve pain without the risk of addiction down the road.

If those options don't work, there are other things to try, too — from acupuncture to yoga and massage therapy. Back pain is a hassle indeed, but just because you have it, it doesn't mean you have to live with it. Try different things to see what works for you.

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