Which Healthcare Professional Is Right for You?

You have an ache or a pain. Maybe it’s been nagging you for some time, or maybe it’s brand new. Maybe it’s the result of a stumble and fall, or maybe it’s come out of nowhere with no warning. Maybe it’s getting harder to live with, and it’s getting in the way of your daily activities.

Whatever it is, it’s best to take care of it sooner rather than later, before it becomes something worse. And it’s best to deal with the root of the problem rather than just attempting to hide it behind aspirin and Tylenol.

So your big question now is: Which expert should I see for help? There seem to be so many options. There are physical therapists, chiropractors, and massage therapists. There are osteopaths and acupuncturists and podiatrists. There’s that guy at the gym who helped your friend work through her shoulder issues. Which one is right for you?

First, See Your Doctor

The first step is always with your own primary care physician or family doctor. While this doctor may not specialize in treatment for your injury, a visit to a generalist like this is invaluable when it comes to getting an overview of your current health, ruling out various dangerous illnesses that may be contributing to your pain, and then, if needed, referring you to an appropriate specialist. A referral from your doctor might even be required by your insurance company if you want coverage for any subsequent treatment.

As for the specialists, there are a variety of possibilities:

Physical Therapists — A physical therapist (aka physiotherapist) is a “movement expert” who works with patients to restore movement, relieve pain, improve strength, and prevent disability. A physical therapist’s training is heavily focused on the mechanics of movement, allowing them to diagnose and treat patients with conditions that limit their abilities to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives. Conditions that may benefit from physical therapy include arthritis, neck and back pain, balance training, headaches, wrist pain, hand injuries, pediatric developmental delays, bone/joint fractures, osteoporosis, stroke, traumatic brain injuries, COPD, and more. All physical therapists hold at least a four-year undergraduate degree and many hold graduate degrees or doctorates. In some states, you may be able to go directly to a physical therapist without a referral from your primary care physician.

While the title is commonly abbreviated as PT, physical therapists are not to be confused with personal trainers.

Occupational Therapist — While a physical therapist will treat a patient’s impairment from a biomechanical perspective, an occupational therapist takes a more holistic approach to helping a patient get on with the activities of daily living. If pain or impairment prevents you from performing an activity that you need to do or love to do, an occupational therapist can work with you in your own environment to develop alternatives or workarounds—either as a temporary fix until recovery is complete, or as an adaptation to new circumstances.

Chiropractor — Chiropractic is an alternative medical treatment (sometimes conducted in conjunction with conventional medicine) that seeks pain relief for muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissue. Many people experiencing back pain will visit a chiropractor. A chiropractor uses hands-on spinal manipulation in an effort to promote healing through proper alignment of the spine and musculoskeletal structure. People with certain conditions (such as osteoporosis, spinal cord compression, or a history of cancer) should probably avoid spinal manipulation, or at least clear it with their primary care physician first.

Osteopath — Osteopathy is another alternative medicine that emphasizes non-invasive manual adjustments focusing on the joints, muscles, and spine. It is considered a complementary therapy, used alongside conventional treatment. In the United States, osteopathic doctors are trained and often practice as regular medical doctors, using osteopathic techniques on only a small percentage of patients.

Podiatrist — If your trouble is down low (no, lower than that) you may benefit from a visit to a podiatrist. A doctor of podiatric medicine specializes in the foot, ankle, and related structures in the leg. Podiatrists are medical doctors whose specialization on the feet can be further focused on pediatrics, sports medicine, wound care, diabetic care, and surgery.

Massage Therapist — A certified massage therapist focuses on manual manipulation of soft body tissues (muscles, connective tissue, tendons, and ligaments) to enhance a person’s health and well being. Two main categories of massage are relaxation (like you’ll find in resorts and spas) and rehabilitative. Rehabilitative massage is used for injury recovery, pain relief, stress reduction, and even relaxation, and is increasingly accepted as a complement to traditional medical care.

Acupuncturist — Acupuncture is an alternative medicine that involves placing thin needles into the skin on different parts of the body. No one know how it works—possibly it leads to the release of natural endorphins—but there is some evidence that acupuncture may be helpful in management of fibromyalgia. If traditional medical treatments have not worked for you, acupuncture may be able to provide some relief from pain, stiffness, and even anxiety. Your milage may vary, but a visit to a certified acupuncture practitioner is a least safe and free of side effects.

And finally, you might consider mind-body therapies such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi as viable options for coping with pain. While you can study the techniques in books and videos, it can be more helpful for beginners to seek out experienced instructors. Look for them in health clubs, hospitals, community centers, or your local gym.