When You Should See a Chiropractor Versus a Physical Therapist


Whether you’re new to the sport or a seasoned runner, chances are you’ve dealt with muscle aches and pains. While you sometimes may be able to self-treat with rest, stretching, at-home exercises and ibuprofen, it’s often a good idea to see a medical professional for a proper diagnosis and to help prevent future injuries. But with all the experts available to you today, you may be wondering: Should you seek physical therapy, or see a sports chiropractor? What’s the difference?

When it comes to running injuries it all comes down to the specific history of an individual and whether the injury is acute or chronic, Adam McBride, a chiropractic physician and certified personal trainer in San Diego, California, says.

A physical therapist's main objective is to restore proper muscle mobility and function through various therapies, such as exercise, while chiropractors are specifically focused on improving joint mobilization. However, many chiropractors today are trained in sports medicine and use many of the same treatment options as physical therapists, such as heat, ice and electrical stimulation, as well as manual therapy, such as joint manipulation and muscle normalization techniques like active release therapy (ART) and myofascial release. They both treat common running injuries like plantar fasciitisAchilles tendinitis and iliotibial (IT) band syndrome, though a chiropractor will often first determine whether it may have been caused by improper alignment. 

“Many chiropractors will most commonly look toward the immobility patterns of the sacrum, the pelvis and the lumbar vertebrae to determine if there are any areas that need a restoration of function that can be helped by an adjustment of some fashion,” McBride says. “This can be done by hand, gravity-assisted tables to allow a drop, adjusting instruments, soft tissue therapy and many other techniques. They can also assess progress of the individual by standing posture, leg length analysis, x-ray drawing, muscle testing and other methods.”

Runners in general most commonly experience knee pain due to improper mechanics with their feet and hips, resulting in their knees compensating for those off movements.

“This can be related to their footwear in a big way, especially if they are not fitted for shoes properly,” McBride says. “This is one area where either a physical therapist or a properly trained chiropractor can evaluate foot motion and hip mechanics on an initial consultation.” 

According to Gavin Hamer, PT, DPT, national director of education for FYZICAL in Sarasota, Florida, in addition to considering an expert’s training, you should also ask about the tools and methods the clinician will use to treat your injuries. This can include differential diagnosis, biomechanical evaluation, joint manipulation, mobilization and medically dosed exercise, as well as prevention programs. How often you should receive treatment depends on how recent the problem is—once the root cause of the issue has been addressed, patients are typically educated enough to be able to manage it themselves with at-home exercises, Hamer says. “Ultimately, the goal is to assist the runner in having balance of the body, muscles and joints to be able enjoy good health and run (pain-free).”

“At the end of the day, both physical therapy and chiropractic care can benefit the individual,” McBride says. “If there are chronic running form problems, it would genuinely be a good idea for a person to consult with both to ask about how they would determine a care plan to progress the health and functioning. If it's general pain, again, either profession will benefit based upon the specific needs of an individual.”

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