DOs, Chiropractors, and MDs: How They’re Different

You’ve got a symptom that won’t go away, whether it’s back pain, sinus problems, or something else. Your mom gives you the name of a medical doctor (MD), while a co-worker suggests that you go to a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). Meanwhile, a friend swears by her chiropractor.

How do you pick? Get to know each of these fields so you can make the best decision for your health.

2 Types of Doctors

DOs and MDs are both physicians who can practice in any area of medicine. Many are primary care doctors, but there are also DOs who specialize in dermatology, cardiology, psychiatry, and other medical fields. All doctors -- MDs and DOs -- can prescribe medication and train to do surgery.  

They have similar training, too. First come 4 years of medical school. After that, MDs and DOs work as interns, residents, and, for some, as fellows in their chosen field for 3-8 more years. More than 20% of medical students are studying to become DOs.

DOs and MDs also have to pass national exams to receive a license to practice medicine.

But they’re not completely alike.

Key Differences

During a routine visit with your doctor, a DO will most likely check on your whole body, not just any symptoms you have. You may hear this called a “holistic” approach. Some MDs also use this approach to medicine.

Osteopathic doctors get extra training in the musculoskeletal system (your muscles, bones, and joints). This knowledge helps them understand how illness or injury can affect another part of the body.

DOs also learn something that MDs don’t: osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT). They use their hands to help diagnose, treat, and prevent illness and injury. It’s a key part of their medical training. Not all DOs use OMT routinely. But when they do, they apply techniques such as gentle pressure, stretching, and resistance to help restore range of motion and encourage good health.  

What About Chiropractors?

Like DOs, chiropractors focus on the entire body and how different bodily systems work with each other. They also use their hands to diagnose and treat people. They do “adjustments” to correct alignment, improve how the body works, and restore health.


DOs and chiropractors share a few similar moves. One example is high-velocity, low-amplitude (HVLA), which is a thrusting motion to the spine that’s meant to help movement.

But chiropractors do not have the same medical training as MDs and DOs. They can’t prescribe medicine or do surgery, for instance. Instead, their expertise is doing adjustments, recommending exercises, and offering nutrition and lifestyle advice.

Chiropractors mainly focus on problems involving the musculoskeletal system, such as back pain, neck pain, and headaches. 

Chiropractors emphasize the alignment of the spine for good health. So they often perform spinal adjustments with their hands or a small tool.

Their training differs, too. Chiropractic students get nearly 4 years of undergraduate college coursework before attending a 4- to 5-year chiropractic college. Typically, they spend at least a year of their training working with patients. After graduation, they must pass an exam to get their license to practice.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on 2/, 016



American Osteopathic Association: “What Is a DO?”

American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine: “What Is Osteopathic Medicine?”

Des Moines University Osteopathic Medical Center: “Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Normal Structure & Function of the Musculoskeletal System.”

American Osteopathic Association: “Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Chiropractic, Spinal Manipulation, and Osteopathic Manipulation.”

American Chiropractic Association: “Education Requirements.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Osteopathic Manipulation for Back and Pelvic Pain.”

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