Difference Between Chiropractor & Orthopedic Doctor

Chiropractors and orthopedic doctors are commonly referred to when problems arise with joints, tendons, and the spinal column. Chiropractors manage symptoms and issues with special hands-on techniques, while orthopedic doctors provide traditional medical diagnosis and treatment.

Comparing Chiropractors and Orthopedic Doctors

Chiropractors work on the neuromusculoskeletal systems (bones, muscles, nerves, tendons and ligaments) of patients using physical manipulation and spinal adjustment. Orthopedic doctors also specialize in neuromusculoskeletal systems, but they are medical doctors who utilize standard medical diagnosing, care and treatment, including surgery.

Job Title Education Requirements Median Salary* (2016) Job Growth* (2014-2024)
Chiropractors Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) $67,520* 17%*
Orthopedic Doctors Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and residency $204,013** 15%* (physicians and surgeons, all others)

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **

Responsibilities of Chiropractors vs. Orthopedic Doctors

Chiropractors and orthopedic doctors both diagnose problems with bones, muscles, tendons, nerves and ligaments. Managing symptoms and alleviating pain for patients is a central concern for both professionals; both take X-rays and assess medical history. However, chiropractors practice neuromusculoskeletal therapy, making adjustments to the spinal disks and joints with their hands. They may also apply heat or cold and recommend certain exercises. Orthopedic doctors, on the other hand, are physicians and surgeons who specialize in neuromusculoskeletal systems during their residency. About half of their work involves surgical patients; they might replace a torn ligament, for example, and manage the patient's progress after the operation. They commonly work with prosthetic devices for such purposes. They also treat bone fractures and other issues that won't necessarily require surgery.


Chiropractors treat patients with the belief that overall health is affected by the the alignment (or misalignment) of the spinal column and joints. They work to restore proper alignment to promote health and disease resistance. A chiropractor's analysis includes posture, spinal alignment, reflexes, and possibly X-rays or ultrasound. Depending on their conclusions, they then make use of specialized therapeutic techniques that involve the hands-on shifting of certain joints, tendons, or muscles. They may also design a rehabilitative exercise program or make use of massage therapy. Some chiropractors specialize in other areas, such as sports, pediatrics, neurology or nutrition.

Job responsibilities of a chiropractor include:

  • Adjust the spine to promote proper health or treat pain
  • Identify neuromusculoskeletal system issues through X-rays
  • Evaluate problems using observation of posture and hands-on manipulation
  • Review medical histories, listen to patient's pain descriptions, and perform physicals
  • Refer patients to medical doctors when necessary

Orthopedic Doctors

Orthopedic physicians are specialized doctors and surgeons with an expertise in neuromusculoskeletal systems. These doctors utilize standard medical practices to test and diagnose problems and then advise their patients on treatment options. They commonly diagnose and treat injuries to the spine, knees, arms and legs. They might prescribe physical therapy, massage treatment, or pharmaceuticals for issues like osteoporosis or muscular dystrophy. Other times, they will operate on patients to replace bones, joints, ligaments, or tendons with prosthetic devices.

Job responsibilities of an orthopedic doctor include:

  • Utilize imaging tests to diagnose medical problems
  • Gather medical histories and perform physical exams
  • Perform orthopedic surgeries and lead surgical teams
  • Prescribe medications
  • Collaborate and communicate findings with other physicians

Related Careers

Occupational therapists, like chiropractors, treat injured or disabled patients with therapeutic methods, though their focus is on regaining the ability to complete simple everyday activities. Those interested in specializing as orthopedic physicians might consider neurosurgery instead, since both professionals address nerve issues and perform surgery.

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