Are you familiar with the major complementary therapies for pain and relaxation? The four most common are chiropractic and physical therapy, and the more alternative treatments of massage and Reiki. But what exactly are they? The best way to understand the differences between chiropractic vs. physical therapy, as well as massage and Reiki, and to determine which would be most effective for your specific needs is to explore each one individually, look at the processes, and the way they work on individual physiology.
Chiropractic vs. physical therapy
Both chiropractors and physical therapists work with patients who suffer from an injury or pain from a chronic condition, but what are the major differences between chiropractic and physical therapy? And what roles can these treatments play in your recovery?
Your choice between chiropractic vs. physical therapy doesn’t have to be either/or. The two treatments often work well in conjunction. For a brief overview of chiropractic vs. physical therapy:
- A chiropractor is a specialist who diagnoses and treats injuries and illnesses of the musculoskeletal system that cause problems with body mechanics. Chiropractors are trained in the science of body manipulation. They can adjust joints and bones to put our bodies back into alignment. This can help improve overall day-to-day functions. They can also work with you to develop a holistic treatment plan that may include a healthy eating regimen, medication, and relaxation.
- A physical therapist assists patients with recovery after an illness or injury and helps restore function and mobility. Physical therapists work with a patient to restore normal mobility through exercises that strengthen muscles and allow for the proper range of motion. They may also utilize massage and hydrotherapy depending on the extent of the patient’s injury.
Both practitioners receive extensive education and certifications in their specialties. They cannot prescribe medications, however, and often their services are used in conjunction with other medical practices. Whether you choose chiropractic vs. physical therapy will be largely based on your specific injury and requirements. Let’s learn more about both chiropractic and physical therapy.
What is chiropractic care?
In general, chiropractors focus on the manipulation of the skeletal muscle systems to put the body back into natural alignment and relieve pain and tension. It isn’t so much an alternative treatment as it is considered complementary to many forms of traditional medicine. Chiropractors are highly trained doctors who have attended both undergraduate and chiropractic graduate school and have specialized in the way the body fits together. They have also been trained to use their hands to apply pressure to the body to help realign anything that has worked itself out of place.
About 22% of adults in the United States visit a chiropractor each year. The manipulation performed by a trained chiropractor helps relieve tension and restore mobility for individuals suffering from chronic pain conditions. Chiropractic care does have risks, usually involving improper manipulation, but these instances are rare and the overall practice is considered safe and effective for most people. Patients living with chronic back pain, headaches, neck pain, osteoarthritis, and even fibromyalgia have found relief through chiropractic care.
What are the benefits of chiropractic care?
Chiropractic care is a proven way to support overall wellness. The basic belief of chiropractic care is that the body can often heal itself with minimal interventions. Chiropractors use non-invasive, outpatient techniques to correct issues in the support systems of the body: the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. This leads to lessened pain and disability, which lowers the need for pain medication or surgery.
In fact, one study looked at 174 workers who suffered lumbar spine injuries at work. Among workers who first saw a surgeon about their injuries, 42.7% eventually had surgery. Only 1.5% of workers who saw a chiropractor first underwent surgery. While there were other factors identified that reduced the odds of eventual surgery, such as gender, age, or race, the study concluded that:
“There was a very strong association between surgery and first provider seen for the injury even after adjustment for other important variables.”
While many studies have been performed to determine the benefits of chiropractic care, it is still very much a controversial subject among healthcare professionals. However, there is little evidence to suggest that it doesn’t work and much more demonstrating the benefits of care for patients who rely on it. In just the last five years multiple studies have been conducted to determine how and why chiropractic care works for many patients.
What is a chiropractic adjustment?
A chiropractic adjustment can benefit a wide array of conditions in addition to back or neck pain.
As expected, the most common reason people go to the chiropractor is for back pain or neck pain, which can have a variety of underlying causes, such as injuries or poor posture while sitting or standing. This type of pain is often accompanied by other symptoms, all of which can benefit from a chiropractic adjustment. Some of these symptoms include migraines or headaches, stiffness, muscle spasms, and pain or numbness in the extremities. In fact, some people may notice one or more of these symptoms, such as persistent headaches, before noticing any back or neck pain.
Surprisingly, chiropractic adjustments can provide full or partial relief for several conditions that wouldn’t seem to be related to the spine, such as:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Fertility issues
- Ear infection
- Gastrointestinal syndromes
- Temporomandibular joint disorder
- Respiratory infection
- Menstrual disorders
Additionally, traditional treatment methods like surgical procedures or medications are often accompanied by a list of potential side effects and risks. Chiropractic care, however, has very few associated risks. The most common side effects of chiropractic adjustments are slight aches or pains, but these generally are gone within 24-48 hours after the adjustment.
Watch this video to learn more about chiropractic adjustment!
What is physical therapy?
During physical therapy, a trained professional works with individuals to create custom activity plans to find ways to manage pain. There are several ways that physical therapy can accomplish this, including:
- Passive physical therapy
- Manual therapy
- Active physical therapy
- Posture improvement
- Techniques such as massage, relaxation, or imagery exercises
Passive physical therapy refers to therapy requiring no movement, like the application of heat, ice, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). Manual therapy is the manipulation of the body by the therapist, often to increase flexibility. However, active physical therapy is generally at the core of most physical therapy. It includes any sort of exercises, such as strengthening exercises, stretching, or aerobics. The types of exercises done in physical therapy will vary for each individual, since the physical therapist will choose exercises based on what will be most beneficial for that individual.
Other aspects of physical therapy, while often not traditional forms of therapy, are still highly beneficial. A physical therapist is trained in a wide variety of techniques and topics, so he or she will know what will do the most good for each patient. For example, one individual might benefit from imagery exercises, while another would do well with massage.
Physical therapy benefits
Physical therapy can help many different conditions, including pain conditions.
As explained by Move Forward, one big way that physical therapy can help chronic pain is by retraining the brain a little. They note that:
“Carefully introducing a graded exercise program will help train your brain to sense the problem area in your body without increasing its danger messages.”
This means that by doing exercises with a physical therapist, people with a pain condition can begin to get used to sensations other than pain.
Also, physical therapy can improve the strength of muscles and joints around painful areas, which can relieve some of the stress usually placed on the painful spots. In fact, physical therapy after knee or hip joint replacement therapy is mandatory for this reason, and it’s even been found that physical “prehabilitation” therapy, or physical therapy before joint replacement surgery, is so effective that it reduces the need for postoperative care by 30%. Stronger muscles and increased flexibility from physical therapy can also improve coordination and balance, reducing the risk of falls.
Additionally, improvements in body mechanics or posture can reduce pain. In fact, for some conditions, improved body mechanics through physical therapy is one of the best possible treatments. Low back pain, for example, is often initially caused by poor body mechanics, such as lifting, standing, bending, sitting, or walking incorrectly, so improving an individual’s body mechanics is key to relieving chronic lower back pain.
Retraining the brain with physical therapy
Another benefit of physical therapy is the education that patients can receive. Not only can physical therapists teach individuals how to safely execute effective exercises and stretches, but they can educate them about their own conditions.
For example, one common hesitation to beginning any sort of activity is the fear of pain. Some studies have found that fear can feed and increase pain. By discussing this fear with the physical therapist, a patient can choose exercises that shouldn’t cause excessive pain. If the exercises do cause some pain, the patient can then discuss it with the therapist to make sure that it’s the expected discomfort, rather than pain that indicates a problem.
Yet another potentially beneficial aspect of physical therapy is mental, though this benefit is shared by both chiropractic and physical therapy. Chronic pain conditions are difficult for others to understand, especially if that pain condition is invisible. However, a physical therapist won’t brush off chronic pain as “attention-seeking” or “in your head,” as people without pain conditions sometimes do. Simply having that pain acknowledged by someone can help, and then the therapist will do his or her best to find ways to reduce that pain.
As you can see, answering the question of chiropractic vs. physical therapy isn’t a straightforward one. Both therapies offer their own merits, and can help patients with pain. Let’s discuss the two alternative, and more relaxation-focused therapies, before returning to this question of chiropractic vs. physical therapy.
Chiropractic vs. massage therapy
Less controversial (and much more relaxing!) is the use of massage therapy to treat muscle and chronic pain. Massage is performed by trained professionals who have attended school to become certified. It is not as intensive as medical school but practitioners must be licensed in most states. Massage not only loosens muscles and relaxes the body, but it can also help with sleep, digestion, and overall mood. There are multiple forms of massage but some of the most common include deep tissue, reflexology, shiatsu, and sports massage.
According to the American Massage Therapy Association, 21% of women and 11% of men indicated they had a massage in the year leading up to July of 2013. Forty-three percent of these people said they sought out massage therapy to help with pain management or soreness and stiffness of the muscles. Eighty-eight percent said that the therapy was effective in helping alleviate their pain.
Massage, much like chiropractic care, does have some risks but they are very minimal. Most people who seek massage therapy treatments do so in a spa setting and also rely on the relaxation aspects of the practice. Massage in this environment is typically performed in a quiet, darkened room with relaxing music and aromatherapy to help set a soothing tone. Massage therapists want to work with each individual to make sure that the right areas of the body are treated and the treatment does not become painful or unbearable in any way.
Chiropractic vs. Reiki
On the other end of the spectrum from chiropractic vs. physical therapy, Reiki is a hands-on healing technique is surrounded by a lot of controversy. Reiki is an energy based healing technique that manipulates the energy of the body through touch. While many practitioners like to place their hands on the body or just off the skin, some practitioners claim that Reiki can actually be performed through long distances. It promotes relaxation, aids the body’s natural healing properties, reduces pain, and improves overall wellbeing.
There is no regulation for the training of Reiki practitioners. Reiki is not necessarily learned but rather transferred from teacher to student through a process called “attunement.” For those who receive it, attunement is considered a powerful spiritual experience. The energies are channeled into the student through a Reiki Master. Once a student has received Reiki they will possess it throughout their lives.
A Reiki session involves relaxation and can be accompanied by the sensation of heat or no sensation at all. Because the practice is not regulated it is important that you are extremely comfortable with the person you’ve chosen to work with. At your appointment you may be asked to lie on your stomach so the practitioner can have access your body’s entire energy center. There has been very little scientific research on Reiki, but some individuals have found pain relief through treatment.
Chiropractic vs. physical therapy, massage, and Reiki: Which treatment is right for you?
As with any treatment for chronic pain, it is important that you do your own research and determine which will be a fit for you when considering chiropractic vs. physical therapy. Speak with your pain doctor for their suggestions on using these therapies for treating your specific pain condition. They’ll have the best insight into what may work best for you, based on your current treatment plan and medical history. They can also discuss any challenges or risks involved in pursuing chiropractic vs. physical therapy.
Often, when it comes to chiropractic vs. physical therapy, your pain doctor can help you pick the option or treatment plan. It may make the most sense to begin with chiropractic care in order that you can continue with physical therapy once your pain levels have reduced and exercise is less difficult. Likewise, chiropractic care is often most effective for neck and back pain issues, so it may make the most sense for you to use chiropractic for these issues, while physical therapy may be more effective for knee pain, leg pain, or other similar conditions.
Massage therapy will typically serve a role of relaxation and tension-relief, that is used in conjunction with and not replacing chiropractic and physical therapy. Since Reiki has so little scientifically-backed evidence, your pain doctor may recommend avoiding this treatment path and focusing on massage instead.
Once you are cleared for whatever treatment you choose, look for a doctor or therapist with whom you are comfortable who listens to your needs during treatments. Make sure you speak up with any questions or concerns and work with the therapist or doctor during your sessions.
We want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on chiropractic vs. physical therapy? Have you tried massage or Reiki to help with pain? If you’re ready to find a pain doctor who can help guide you on your path to less pain with chiropractic and physical therapy, contact us today!