Sports Chiropractors versus Medical Doctors (MD)


Let’s hash out some of the differences between an MD and DO. Without getting too specific, both are medical doctors. Both apply for and train in the same residency programs and both will sit for the same national board exams.

In short, in the real world, you may not see much of a difference in an MD or DO, except for the different letters behind their names.

The difference is in what type of medical school they went to. MD’s go to allopathic schools, which train in conventional, western medicine.

MD’s can and do specialize and practice in both orthopedic and sports medicine. DO’s are “Doctors of Osteopathic” medicine. They go to osteopathic schools, where their training is essentially the same as that of an MD, with the exception that their curriculum also includes Osteopathic Manipulation (OM).

OM is a practice similar to Chiropractic in that the underlying principles are that function is dependent upon structure and the body has an innate ability to heal itself. Osteopaths can almost be thought of as a mix between an MD and DC.

While some DO’s incorporate OM heavily into their practices, but many do not. Many DO’s share the same function as MD’s in the medical setting. DO’s can specialize and practice in any area of medicine, not just orthopedics and/or sports medicine.

Now, back to sports chiropractors and medical doctors. To put it very simply, these two can have different approaches to the treatment of injury, depends on the doctors. As we’ve discussed before, chiropractic training and care is a more holistic, natural and drug-free approach to pain and injury that utilizes numerous techniques and modalities. Medical doctors typically operate more as a “quarterback” for the rehab team.

Many MD’s are great at diagnosing but they will have to “hand-off” the application of non-medicated types of treatment plans.

This “hand-off” can be to a PT or a Sports Chiropractor. MD’s have more formal education in pharmacology and can rely more heavily on the use of drugs and surgical intervention as an approach to treating both.

Medical doctors are aware of soft tissue techniques, but do not practice them themselves; they may or may not routinely refer to massage therapists or PT’s for this. They also may have some knowledge of nutrition, but often refer to a registered dietitian for counseling and services in this area.

There are some medical doctors that specialize in the area of sports medicine. This is not a specific residency program (required of MD’s and DO’s) after medical school, but rather a 1-2 year fellowship program where they can get further training and experience with sports injuries. Usually, these medical doctors will come from one of two types of residencies: primary care based (family practice, internal medicine, pediatrics) or orthopedic surgery.

Non-surgical, primary care based sports medicine physicians have advanced training and skills at evaluating and treating sports injuries; while their training places heavy emphasis on orthopedic surgery techniques, they don’t do surgery.

The surgical sports medicine physician is typically an orthopedic surgeon whose fellowship training involves advanced, specialized surgical training to repair specific orthopedic injuries (i.e. shoulders or knees).

Many professional athletic organizations will utilize the skills and knowledge of both medical doctors (primary care and surgical sports medicine) and sports chiropractors. Instead of thinking of them as competing sources of care for an athlete, they can often be complimentary to and of one another.

Obviously, there will be times when surgical care is the only option for an athlete, but a sports chiropractor can be heavily involved in the routine training and conditioning programs, preventative and rehabilitative care that they need as well.