Spine Doctors vs. Chiropractors

Know which healthcare professional you should see if you have pain in your back, neck, or spine.

Spine Doctors vs. Chiropractors

Patients may often ask themselves which doctor they should see for their back pain. Studies have shown that chiropractors provide effective treatment for back pain. However, chiropractors cannot treat all causes of back pain because there are also conditions that should be diagnosed and treated by a medical doctor.

How do you know when to see a spine doctor or a chiropractor for your back pain? Read on to find out. 

Spine Doctors

Spine doctors are board-certified physicians or surgeons who specialize in problems involving the musculoskeletal system, which includes the spine. Since there are many types of spine doctors, it is quite important to choose the right one to diagnose and treat your condition.

When choosing the right spine doctor, it is also important to consider his or her level of professional training and expertise. Spine doctors undergo fellowship training, which must be completed as an additional training for their medical specialty. Being able to complete their training helps them to properly diagnose and effectively treat conditions or injuries in specific areas of the body.  

Spine doctors include:

1. Orthopedists

Orthopedics is a medical specialty that focuses on the diagnosis, treatment, correction, and prevention of diseases or injuries of the body’s musculoskeletal system. The specialists who practice orthopedics are called orthopedists or orthopedic surgeons.

Orthopedists treat people of all ages who have musculoskeletal problems, which include low back pain, neck pain, scoliosis, and ruptured discs. Orthopedic surgeons perform surgeries, such as discectomies, spinal fusion, and more.

2. Neurologists

People with neck or back pain might choose a neurologist to diagnose and treat their condition. Neurologists are specialists who diagnose and treat nervous system problems, including brain disorders and disorders of the spinal cord and peripheral nerves. However, neurologists do not perform spine surgeries, but only examine nerve function and prescribe medications.

Neurologists may also refer their patients to other specialists, as deemed appropriate.

3. Neurosurgeons

Neurosurgeons are medical specialists who perform surgical and nonsurgical treatment to people who have problems in the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. For surgical treatment, these specialists might perform surgery on the spine itself, brain, and spinal cord.

Although neurosurgeons also treat patients with back pain without surgery, most patients are only referred to these specialists after exhausting all possible options.

4. Rheumatologists

Physicians with formal training in rheumatology, which is a branch of medicine that focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic diseases, including low back pain, are called rheumatologists.

Rheumatologists are board-certified physicians who specialize in diagnosing and treating many forms of arthritis. Many rheumatologists specialize in a group of diseases called inflammatory arthritis, which includes ankylosing spondylitis, spinal arthritis, axial spondyloarthritis (axSpA), sacroiliitis, and related conditions.

5. Physiatrists

Physiatrists or physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physicians specialize in the treatment of a variety of conditions that affect the brain, spinal cord, nerves, muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons.

Physiatrists are medical doctors with subspecialties in pain medicine, neuromuscular medicine, brain injury medicine, spinal cord injury medicine, hospice and palliative medicine, including sports medicine. These doctors provide treatment and rehabilitation for all kinds of injuries or conditions from athletic injuries and low back pain to stroke. 

6. Osteopathic Physicians 

Like Doctors of Medicine (MDs), osteopathic physicians also complete four years of medical school. Also called as osteopaths, these doctors are also licensed to practice medicine and provide treatment, including surgery.

Osteopaths also utilize their hands when diagnosing and treating their patients similar to what chiropractors do. However, osteopaths undergo more studies and education than chiropractors since they are required to graduate from an accredited medical school along with a board certification in Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.).

Osteopaths can also perform minor surgical procedures and prescribe medications aside from performing hands-on manipulation when treating their patients. They focus more on the muscles, joints, and spine, and treatment is usually aimed at improving the body’s circulatory, nervous, and lymphatic systems. 


Chiropractors are healthcare professionals who practice chiropractic alternative medicine, which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of mechanical and musculoskeletal disorders, particularly those that involve the spine. Chiropractors emphasize their treatment through manual adjustment or manipulation of the spine.

Chiropractic is categorized as a complementary or alternative medicine, which helps improve the functionality of patients as well as promoting pain relief. 

Education and Career

To become a chiropractor, 2-4 years of undergraduate education are required depending on the state. Other requirements include a 4-year chiropractic program (some may vary in length), clinical internship, and passing both state and national examinations before obtaining a license.

Chiropractors finish their studies from accredited chiropractic schools and earn a Doctor of Chiropractic degree instead of an MD degree from a medical school. A bachelor’s degree before enrolling to chiropractic schools is not also required in chiropractic candidates. However, an undergraduate coursework of at least 90 semester hours is required for chiropractic program acceptance.

Like most careers in the healthcare industry, chiropractors are also required to earn continuing medical education (CME) credits to maintain continued competence and keep their licensure current. 

Conditions Treated by Chiropractors

A variety of nonsurgical treatments are used by chiropractors when treating patients who have any of the following conditions:

Chiropractors may also refer their patients to other health practitioners or medical doctors for lower back pain treatment. There are also many chiropractors who work together with other spine specialists in multispecialty spine clinics. 


Chiropractors can effectively treat most cases of back pain, especially acute back pain. However, potentially serious medical conditions may require the help of medical doctors for further diagnosis and treatment. 


Blanchette, M., Stochkendahl, M., Borges Da Silva, R., Boruff, J., Harrison, P., & Bussières, A. (2016). Effectiveness and Economic Evaluation of Chiropractic Care for the Treatment of Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review of Pragmatic Studies. PLOS ONE, 11(8), e0160037. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0160037

Orthopaedics - OrthoInfo - AAOS. (2018). Retrieved 8 December 2018, from

What is a Physiatrist? (2018).

Steven G. Yeomans, D. (2018). What is a Chiropractor? Spine-health.