This is a question that I get everyday in practice from both current and prospective patients. It is a really good question and it can sometimes be difficult to answer, so I will do my best to be as straight forward as possible.
The reason it is difficult to answer is because in both professions, chiropractic and physiotherapy, there is no one way to practice. You may find 3 chiropractors that all do different things and the same goes for physical therapists. It is important to not make your decision based on what profession they are in, but based on how that individual would treat or manage your condition. Remember I speak from my point of view, based on the type of patients and conditions that I manage frequently and that I am good at treating.
Chiropractors should be first thought when you are looking to improve movement that you have lost or has become painful. Chiropractors use a combination of soft tissue and joint manipulation to help increase and restore movement and decrease pain. Chiropractors will also give you specific exercises and stretches that will help improve your condition. Most chiropractors, myself included, view themselves as spine experts and this is reflected in the conditions I see most often. Examples of conditions that I treat regularly are acute and chronic neck and back pain, sciatica, shoulder pain, elbow pain, hip pain, headaches and migraines.
Physiotherapists should be your first thought when it comes to post surgery rehabilitation or rehabilitation from acute debilitating injuries. In this category I mainly use examples such as rehabilitation from: ankle sprains, knee injuries, shoulder or AC joint dislocations/separations etc. Physiotherapists are also successful at managing both acute and chronic pain conditions.
Simply put, both chiropractors and physiotherapists are good at managing both acute and chronic pain conditions. What sets chiropractors apart in this category in my opinion is our knowledge and expertise of the spine and back. It is for this reason that for almost every person that is experiencing back pain, neck pain or sciatica I recommend they see a chiropractor that they trust or have heard good things about.
And Remember what I said at the beginning of this post, no two chiropractors or physiotherapists are the same. Think of it like this, if you went to the dentist and had a bad experience, you simply would not never go back to the dentist or find a different dentist to go to hoping that your cavity would magically go away. It is the same with chiropractors and physiotherapists. It is important that you find the right person to help you and to make it easier most providers offer free consultations so that you can come in a decide for yourself if they are right for you.
Dr. Phil Wessel