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

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on May 04, 2022
3 min read

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 osteopathy (DO). Meanwhile, a friend swears by their chiropractor.

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

DOs and MDs are both physicians who can practice in any area of medicine. Many are primary care doctors, but both DOs and MDs can specialize in dermatology, cardiology, psychiatry or any other medical or surgical field. 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 25% of medical students are studying to become DOs.

DOs and MDs also have to pass state exams to receive a license to practice medicine. Both can practice medicine in all 50 states.

But they’re not completely alike.

DOs will 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.

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.

Chiropractors get in-depth training, though it’s not the same as that of MDs and DOs.

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, though it’s not in a residency program. After graduation, they must pass a national board exam in order to get a license to practice. And they must meet continuing education requirements every year to keep their licenses.

Chiropractors’ expertise is doing adjustments, recommending exercises, and offering nutrition and lifestyle advice. They typically focus on problems involving the musculoskeletal system, such as back pain, neck pain, and headaches.

According to the Practice Analysis of Chiropractic- 2020, by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners, "chiropractors act as drugless care providers in a wide variety of areas."  It goes on to say that "modern chiropractic uses evidence-based practice with an emphasis on conservative and non-pharmacologic methods to aid patients in the recovery and maintenance of a state of health."  

Legislation varies by state as to their scope of practice.