What Are the Differences Between Chiropractors and Orthopaedic Doctors?

Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

Medically reviewed by Dr. James Tan

Persistent pain can take over your life. Whether you wake up to a stiff neck and back or have been fighting with chronic knee pain or arthritis for years, the discomfort is impossible to ignore. And you shouldn’t dismiss the feeling! When you’ve got an ache that is affecting your daily life, it’s time to take action. But, what kind of doctor should you see for your pain? What type of specialists can help you get rid of soreness and keep it away?

People often confuse different types of specialists, especially when we are talking about the difference between chiropractors and orthopaedic doctors. Before you book your appointment, however, it’s essential to have a clear understanding of your options.

Should you go to an orthopaedic doctor or is it better to see a chiropractor? Let’s break it down today in your guide to specialists who deal with musculoskeletal issues.

What Is the Difference Between Orthopaedic and Chiropractic Doctors?

To understand the difference between an orthopaedic doctor and a chiropractor, it’s necessary to look at their backgrounds. Once you understand their education and the focus on their practice, you’ll get a better sense of your options.

What Do Chiropractors Do?

First things first, it’s crucial to keep in mind that chiropractors are not medical doctors. Chiropractors in Singapore are not regulated by the government. There is no official Doctorate of Chiropractic Medicine here. Any chiropractic doctor with a medical degree in Singapore has been educated outside of the country.

The Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH) defines chiropractic care as a form of “complementary and alternative medicine.” They don’t fall under the category of registered medical practitioners or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners. Nonetheless, chiropractors are subject to the law. This means they must comply with the Medicines Act, Business Registration Act and Companies Act, Sale of Drugs Act, and other relevant legislation.

For this reason, chiropractors can’t prescribe medications. Instead, they work with hands-on treatment and focus on alternative therapies rather than surgery. If you’re dealing with back pain, a chiropractor will focus on spinal manipulation to help you regain your mobility.

What Do Orthopaedic Doctors Do?

Orthopaedic doctors, on the other hand, are indeed medical doctors. They are healthcare professionals who must meet the exact requirements set out by the government. Orthopaedic doctors in Singapore complete a residency programme and a 72-month training. During their education, they learn how to treat the complete musculoskeletal system. As orthopaedic doctors, they can treat issues with muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons as well as the surrounding nerves and blood vessels, and can perform surgery or treatments such as platelet-rich plasma injections.

Orthopaedic doctors often start treatment by assessing the issue with X-rays and MRI scans. From there, they may prescribe pain relief medication or physical therapy. In more severe cases, an orthopaedic surgeon may offer other solutions, such as injections or surgery.

How Do I Know If I Need a Chiropractor or Physiotherapist?

Another frequently asked question is about the difference between chiropractors and physiotherapists. While some of their treatments overlap, it is again important to note the difference in background and regulation. In order to be a physiotherapist in Singapore, you must be registered with the Allied Health Professions Council (AHPC) and meet the qualifications standards. Meanwhile, chiropractors vary in their experience and education level.

In terms of treatment, most chiropractors focus heavily on the spine and its mobility. They treat a range of conditions like pain in the hips, neck and shoulder pain, and back pain with spinal manipulation. In contrast, physiotherapists focus on weaknesses and imbalances in your muscles. They treat a full array of conditions like wrist injuries and ankle injury treatment as well, with a focus on using targeted exercises to rehabilitate and restore movement.

An orthopaedic doctor may work with a physiotherapist. They offer complementary treatments that often begin with the doctor doing a physical check and possibly an X-ray or MRI scan. For debilitating cases, pain relief medication is prescribed and then you move on to a physiotherapist who can help you create an exercise routine to strengthen your muscles to prevent cramps and loosen your joints. For example, if you’re experiencing shoulder pain, the orthopaedic doctor will create a routine to boost your shoulder mobility while offering treatment for shoulder pain. To reduce the need for pain medications, physiotherapists often provide deep tissue massages and other therapeutic treatments.

Read more: What’s the Difference Between Physiotherapy and Orthopaedic Surgery?

Who Should Not See a Chiropractor?

Many people swear by chiropractor treatment. They find that spinal manipulation provides them with instant pain relief. They feel a sense of relief similar to cracking your knuckles and feeling that popping relief. This can be helpful for a wide range of conditions but, at the same time, your results may vary.

Since chiropractors are unregulated and have unknown credentials, there is an inherent risk level. Likewise, more severe conditions require anything from pain relief medication to surgery and those are things a chiropractor can’t provide. For example, if you suspect a shoulder injury, it is best to visit an orthopaedic doctor for shoulder dislocation treatment or rotator cuff injury treatment.

Are Chiropractic Adjustments Worth It in Singapore?

Comparing chiropractors and orthopaedic doctors, you’ll see a considerable difference in the price per visit. Many chiropractors offer a free first visit to bring in new customers. Since it is a competitive industry, chiropractors offer lower prices and most will get you in for an appointment much sooner than an orthopaedic doctor.

The complete costs of seeing a chiropractor, however, can be a bit different. While you will pay more for a visit to an orthopaedic doctor, one visit may be enough. Even in severe back issues, a handful of visits will typically suffice. Orthopaedic doctors would not have patients who come for maintenance visits. When you’re feeling better, there is no need to keep spending your time and money on visits to an orthopaedic doctor.

On the other hand, ongoing chiropractic visits are quite common. During the first stages of treatment, a chiropractor may ask you to come back every few days. Once your pain is resolved, it is still common to keep going to a chiropractor every couple of weeks or monthly for ongoing treatments.

What Do Orthopaedic Doctors Think of Chiropractors?

Every orthopaedic doctor is different just like every chiropractor is different. An orthopaedic doctor may respect one chiropractor and think another is unfit to practice. Likewise, not every chiropractor respects the work of every orthopaedic doctor. Ultimately, they are all people with their own unique opinions.

When To See an Orthopaedic Doctor in Singapore

When it comes to deciding if you should see an orthopaedic doctor vs a chiropractor, it’s essential to consider the severity of your conditions. For chronic or acute pain such as Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tears, it’s best to go directly to a medical doctor to treat ACL tears. An orthopaedic doctor can diagnose your condition and offer effective pain-relief options. A doctor can also put you on the path of physical therapy and medication if required.

You might also want to take a look at our discussion of whether ACL tears can heal on their own or when your injury isn’t as minor as you thought. Think you might need to see an orthopaedic doctor? Here are a few key signs.

Everyday Activities Are a Struggle

While occasional aches and pains are common, they shouldn’t stop you in your tracks. If you are experiencing aches and pains at work or doing your usual activities such as getting up the stairs, something is wrong. Regardless of your age and medical history, there are solutions.

Limited Range of Movement  

Issues like arthritis can severely limit your range of motion. If you feel like your joints are getting tighter or if it hurts when you do workouts such as running, it is important to see a doctor and start a treatment plan.

Instability While Standing or Walking

Do you ever feel suddenly shaky? If you lose support or feel like you could collapse at any moment, it is time to get your joints checked.

Pain Isn’t Going Away 

It’s not unusual to wake up with a sore back or neck, but it should get better with time. If you’ve been dealing with chronic pain for more than three months, something is wrong.

Persistent Pain from a Soft Tissue Injury

For many injuries, the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) or ice treatment approach is enough. If you have tried this and you’re still in pain 48 hours later, it’s time to see a professional.

Making an Appointment with an Orthopaedic Doctor in Singapore

Sports injuries can be a major source of pain and discomfort for athletes, and it’s important to seek proper sports injury treatment to prevent long-term damage. Foot pain and tennis elbow are common problems among athletes, particularly those who play sports that involve overhead motions or repetitive use of the forearm muscles and tendons. Effective shoulder pain treatment and tennis elbow treatment often involve a combination of physical therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. If you’re experiencing pain or discomfort related to a sports injury, it’s important to seek help from a qualified orthopaedic doctor.

Ready to get checked out and start on a path of effective pain relief? To get started, you can book an appointment online with our trusted orthopaedic doctor Dr James Tan.

If you’d like to find us directly, visit one of our clinics below:

Camden Medical

1 Orchard Boulevard, #09-06

Singapore 248649

Mount Alvernia Hospital

820 Thomson Road

Medical Centre D #05-60

Singapore 574623

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Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

About the Author

Dr James Tan is a skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.

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