Chiropractic vs. Physical Therapy: What’s The Difference For Back Pain Treatment?

Though back pain is one of the most common ailments among adults, it can be tough to know how to get relief. 

Who can help you? Where should you turn for expertise and guidance? 

If you’re looking for treatment options that won’t just be a prescription or surgery suggestion, both chiropractic and physical therapy can be great non-invasive treatments for back pain. However, these two options for care aren’t entirely identical.

Before booking an appointment, get acquainted with each treatment philosophy to understand better which approach may best serve your back pain.

Key Differences In Treatment Philosophies

Yes, both chiropractic and physical therapy can treat back pain conservatively. It’s also true they are both licensed health professionals who use manual or hands-on therapy for treatment. But that’s where the similarities end. Though these treatments have some overlap, there are key differences to keep in mind when choosing a health professional to work with for your back pain. 

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy treatment uses routines or exercises to restore mobility and minimize pain with movement. The important aspect of PT to understand is that the focus of this treatment philosophy is really centered around movement as a means to treat your tissue. The routines that a PT prescribes offer ways to get your body moving and functioning again through the use of an exercise regime designed to target healing patterns specific to your injury or discomfort.

Physical therapists focus on how the body moves as a whole and often emphasize stretching to improve mobility during your treatment. This treatment is usually recommended a set amount of times per week or month–like a prescription, except for movement. You can almost think of a physical therapist as a type of coach. 


Though chiropractic care also helps patients restore mobility, it’s not the primary goal of this type of treatment. Instead, chiropractic care focuses on treating the cause of pain directly. A chiropractor uses manipulations or adjustments of the spine and extremities to directly treat your entire structural system: meaning your nerves, muscles, tendons, and joints. These gentle adjustments of the spine, neck, and extremities help to realign your body, relieve muscle soreness, and decrease pressure– providing real relief and allowing your system to restore proper function.

They also address both structural imbalances that could cause pain, as well as the surrounding tissue. As such, they can enable the body to heal naturally and more swiftly. 

When To Seek Physical Therapy Vs. Chiropractic Treatment

Given the differences in treatment approaches, is one option better than the other for care? In truth, the answer is: it depends. Both treatments have their time and place.

For instance, physical therapy is a great option for those who need to regain mobility:

  • Following a mobility-limiting injury
  • After a surgery

If a patient is having difficulty regaining proper range of motion following a knee surgery, they may be recommended some time with a physical therapist. Similarly, if a patient has lost mobility because of pain or a past injury, physical therapy treatment can help. Because of the emphasis on movement as a modality, physical therapy exercises can help provide the mobility they need for relief.


On the other hand, chiropractic care is a great option for pain treatment to those experiencing:

  • Nagging back or neck pain 
  • A sports injury
  • Whiplash following an accident
  • Headaches or migraines 


This is because chiropractic’s ability to treat the root of pain through the use of adjustments to provide direct relief to an injury.  

Though both treatment options are fantastic conservative care resources, it’s ultimately important to consider what you’re looking to get out of treatment. Is your chief complaint a lack of mobility? If so, physical therapy may be the route for you. However, if you’re struggling with pain from an injury, you may want to consider chiropractic. Along targeting the root cause of pain using adjustments, these chiropractic adjustments also provide relief to your entire body– thus speeding the healing process along. Additionally, chiropractic practitioners can still (and often do) prescribe at-home exercises to help your out-of-office healing even further. 

The bottom line?

If you’ve been in pain, it’s time to begin your healing process.

Dr. Tim Swift proudly serves San Clemente, San Juan, Dana Point, and the surrounding areas of Orange County, California.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for in-person advice or care from a medical professional.

Picture of Dr. Tim Swift

Dr. Tim Swift

Dr. Tim Swift combines his chiropractic expertise with regenerative medicine to bring a passion for restoring health, mobility, and vitality to help his community feel and function better.


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