How to Become a Chiropractor

Overview

By Sarah Maurer
chiropractor with a model spine

Chiropractors are health care professionals who treat illnesses and injuries and promote overall health using hands-on adjustments of the spine and joints. Unlike medical doctors, they do not prescribe drugs or perform surgeries. Instead, they focus on increasing the body's natural healing power.

Chiropractors are experts in caring for the neuromusculoskeletal system, which includes the nerves, spinal cord, bones, ligaments, and tendons. People often turn to them for treatment of back and neck pain, headaches, arthritis, and injury rehabilitation. Chiropractic care is also believed to promote overall health and wellness. For this reason, a growing number of people are choosing a chiropractor as their primary care provider.

Typical duties of a chiropractor include:

  • Assess patients by taking a history and performing a physical examination. This might include tests for posture, reflexes, and spinal health.
  • Diagnose health conditions.
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests.
  • Treat medical conditions using spine and joint manipulation, heat and cold therapy, ultrasound, therapeutic exercise, acupuncture, and other techniques.
  • Counsel patients on wellness issues such as exercise, nutrition, and sleep.
  • Make appropriate referrals when a patient's condition is outside a chiropractor’s scope of practice.
  • Perform business management tasks like marketing and staff supervision (if in private practice).

Most chiropractors are generalists, but some specialize in a practice area like pediatrics, orthopedics, nutrition, or sports rehabilitation.

Chiropractic is based on a wellness model of human health and functioning. Chiropractors believe that structural maladjustments of the joints and spine impair the nervous system, causing pain and dysfunction throughout the body. Relieving these maladjustments enhances the body's natural healing abilities. Chiropractors also acknowledge the roles that infection, injury, and occupational and lifestyle factors play in human health.

Many chiropractors are drawn to the field because of its emphasis on natural, patient-centered care. They take pride in healing their patients without the use of invasive treatments. They also like being part of a well-established health care field with a high degree of acceptance and prestige.

Work Environment

About 37 percent of chiropractors were self-employed in 2012, either as solo practitioners or joint owners in a group practice. Most of the rest work for chiropractic practices, physician practices, hospitals, holistic health centers, and chiropractic schools.

Self-employed chiropractors enjoy considerable freedom to set their own hours. About a third of chiropractors work part-time. However, it's common for these professionals to work some evening and weekend hours for the convenience of patients.

Chiropractic is a very social profession. Throughout the workday, chiropractors have almost constant contact with their patients, colleagues, assistants, and office staff. Because the chiropractic philosophy of care is very patient-focused, chiropractors spend considerable time listening to patients concerns and providing advice and education.

Most chiropractors work in clean, comfortable office settings. However, the job can be quite physical and may involve long periods of standing.

Requirements

Education

Chiropractors must earn a Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree, which will require usually 4-5 years of study after undergraduate study.

High school students interested in a chiropractic career should take as many high-level science classes as possible. Coursework in anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, physics and psychology can help to lay a strong foundation for this career path. This is also a great time to learn more about chiropractic philosophy and practice through job shadowing, volunteering, and reading.

Some chiropractic schools admit strong students who have completed two to four years of undergraduate work, but most prefer candidates with bachelor's degrees. No specific major is required, but students should have a strong background in the natural sciences. A good rule of thumb is to take the same prerequisites required for medical school:

  • One year of biology
  • Two years of chemistry (through organic chemistry)
  • One year of English
  • One year of physics.

Chiropractic schools are accredited by the The Council on Chiropractic Education. Most programs take four to five years to complete. Students receive extensive classroom and lab instruction in anatomy, physiology, rehabilitation, nutrition, and public health. They also complete at least one full year of clinical experience, during which they care for patients under supervision.

There are several levels of post-graduate study available to chiropractors:

  • Certificate programs in veterinary, extremity, rehabilitation, sport, and spinal trauma care
  • Three-year post-graduate programs leading to board certification in pediatrics, acupuncture, orthopedics, neurology, radiology, diagnosis and internal disorders, sports medicine, family practice, and clinical nutrition
  • A master's degree in a related field such as nutrition, rehabilitation, or public health.

Training

In order to become board-certified in some chiropractic specialties (radiology or sports rehabilitation), candidates must complete a three-year residency, or supervised clinical training program.

Licensing and Certification

Chiropractors must be licensed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This process is usually administered by the state health department or a specific board of chiropractic examiners.

All states require the following for licensure:

Some states also require:

  • A bachelor's degree
  • Passage of a state licensure exam
  • Additional requirements.

Chiropractic specialists are generally board-certified, which requires additional study and the passage of a specialty-specific exam.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

  • Interpersonal and communication skills. Chiropractic is a very patient-focused discipline. Chiropractors spend a lot of time listening carefully to their patients, which helps them to determine possible underlying causes of health issues. In addition, being warm and personable helps the chiropractor attract and retain patients.
  • Empathy and compassion. Chiropractors are drawn to the profession by their desire to promote health and relieve pain. They often care for people who are in physical and emotional distress.
  • Decision-making. Chiropractors rely on strong clinical knowledge to diagnose complex conditions and create appropriate treatment plans. They must also know when to refer a patient to a medical doctor for treatment.
  • Detail-oriented. Chiropractic diagnosis depends on the ability to detect small irregularities in the spine and joints. These professionals must also be alert for subtle changes in patients' conditions that could signal the need for a higher level of treatment.
  • Dexterity. Chiropractors need good hand-eye coordination and strength to deliver hands-on therapies.
  • Business management. In addition to providing clinical care, self-employed chiropractors must be comfortable running all aspects of a practice and supervising employees.

Experienced chiropractors can expand their opportunities by:

  • Starting a private practice
  • Pursuing certification or board-certification in a specialty
  • Learning new techniques
  • Becoming a faculty member at a chiropractic training program, which involves teaching, research, and administrative duties
  • Advancing the profession through involvement in professional organizations.

Opportunities for Advancement

For students interested in becoming leaders within the profession, the Student American Chiropractic Association (SACA) provides a Leadership Apprentice & Mentor Program. This prepares new professionals to serve as state delegates and to head committees and specialty councils within the American Chiropractic Association.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a chiropractor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, chiropractors earn a mean annual wage of $78,370. The lowest-earning 10 percent earned less than $31,310, and the highest-earning 10 percent earned more than $140,580.

Salary tends to grow with experience and years in practice. Chiropractors can build their clientele by being personable, achieving great results for patients, and taking time to educate themselves about the business side of the profession.

There are many resources available to chiropractors who are looking to start a new practice or manage an existing practice. The ACA maintains an online practice resource center for its members.

Job prospects for chiropractors should be very good over the next ten years. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment to grow by 17 percent between 2014 and 2024.

In large part, growth will be driven by increased public demand for alternative and complimentary therapies. People of all ages are seeking nonmedical treatments to their health problems. In addition, medical doctors have begun to recognize the value of chiropractic care. As a result, chiropractors are increasingly joining team practices within physician groups and hospitals.

Demand for all health care services is expected to increase over the next decade as the population ages. Members of the Baby Boomer generation are staying active longer and are more engaged in their own health care than previous generations. In many cases, they are choosing chiropractic treatment for arthritis, back pain, and other bone and joint conditions associated with aging.

Finally, federal health care reform and expanded insurance coverage has given more people access to all health care services, including chiropractic care.

The International Chiropractors Association maintains a job board, as do several of the chiropractic specialties.

Further Reading

Many Children Now Rely on Alternative Remedies. New York Times article about parents' growing interest in natural treatments, including chiropractic, for kids.

A Day in the Life - Chiropractor. Informational video shows chiropractors assessing and treating patients.

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