How to Become a Chiropractor

Chiropractors help others heal from pain. Here’s what you need to know to become one.

Over the years, the medical landscape has changed as more patients seek out natural health treatments. This is particularly good news if you’re at the stage in your education and career decision-making process where you’re wondering how to become a chiropractor.

“When you become a chiropractor, there’s a lot of freedom there,” says Dr. Jerry Dreessen, DC, CCSP.

With an advanced degree, you’ll have the opportunity to work as a private practitioner, partner with other medical professionals or even go into academia.

To get started, you’ll need to hit the books, but the time spent in school will be worth it. The job can be immensely rewarding; chiropractors are often listed in top health care job rankings.

Before you can head to chiropractic school, you’ll need a pre-med background. Your first step should be earning a bachelor’s degree in science. It’s also a good idea to check the admissions requirements at the chiropractic schools you’re interested in.

Watch Dreessen talk about planning for your chiropractic career.

How Long is Chiropractor School?

Chiropractor school typically takes four years to complete. Programs are rigorous and you’ll obtain deep knowledge of the human body through classes and clinical training.

The four years you spend in chiropractic school are divided in a way that will give you comprehensive knowledge of the human body. The first two years are classroom and lab-based while the final two years of school are spent in clinics.

Although you’ll have plenty of textbooks to consult, be warned: Much of your learning will occur using cadavers in the lab.

Chiropractic Classes: What You’ll Learn

Chiropractic classes go beyond teaching students how to align someone’s spine. You’ll also learn physiology, chemistry and organic sciences. In order to treat patients properly and holistically, chiropractic students are taught how the body works at the most minute level.

“You learn the microscopic side as deep as you can all the way up to the human body and how that all integrates,” Dreessen, owner of Seattle-area Back to Action Chiropractic, says. “When someone comes in for care on the clinical side, you’re not just looking at a spot. You’re looking at the whole body and you try to find the cause of the problem, not just treat the symptoms.”

Chiropractic classes start out with palpation. You’ll learn how to use your fingers and hands to examine the body. Once this skill is mastered, you’ll become immersed in the adjusting technique, which is taught in a specific order:

  1. Mid-back
  2. Low back
  3. Cervical adjusting

Dreessen says cervical adjusting comes last in the series because it’s the most delicate. Students need to be comfortable adjusting the low and mid-back before they go further.

If you skipped physics in high school, be prepared for it in chiropractic college. It’s important because it relates to properly lifting patients. For instance, lifting 10 pounds from a certain distance can equate to 300 pounds of tension on the back.

Dreessen recalls another challenging, but rewarding course: Neuroanatomy, the study of the central and peripheral nervous system. With the help of both lectures and lab work, you’ll learn concepts such as how a signal travels through the body when you wiggle your finger.

Your lab experience will be crucial because it goes beyond the basics. Textbooks represent what most people look like, Dreessen notes, but using real bodies with variances helps students recognize issues their future patients may have.

In fact, you can expect your hands-on experiences to be tested by the unexpected, and Dreessen recollects studying gross anatomy—the organs, structures and parts of the human body that can be seen visibly with the eye.

“You walk in and seven or eight of the cadavers have about 10 tags on them,” he says. “There’s just a number with a string tied to something. It can be any part of the body and you have to be able to identify what the name of the muscle is, what’s the insertion point, what nerve [it is].”

Because chiropractors believe in a natural approach to treatment, but also need to understand medical results, you’ll take nutrition and radiology courses, and learn how to read blood tests.

Having this extensive knowledge has benefits. You’ll likely have patients who are perplexed or frustrated by their MD’s test results. Being able to decipher this information and treat the cause will make you invaluable to your patients.

Watch Dreessen describe what chiropractor school is like.

Chiropractic School Clinical Training

As a testament to the thoroughness of a chiropractic program, you’ll spend your third year in junior clinic learning clinician techniques, such as how to use physical therapy, perform minor surgery and midwifery.

Your final year in school lands you in senior clinic at an outpatient facility working with the public. During this time, you’ll interact with patients from various backgrounds and learn the operations of a medical facility.

“You have a book you have to go through and you have to take so many X-rays, you have to see so many patients with certain [symptoms], That way you have a good handle on what you’re doing. You’re the one actually doing it. It’s all hands-on.”

Depending on the school you attend, your clinical training may happen at a campus health center or community clinic. During this period, you’ll have the chance to teach patients how to skip the medicine cabinet and feel better naturally.

“There’s a lot of people who are tired of pills, punctures, potions and powders and what they want is a way to be healthy without masking symptoms,” Dreessen adds.

What Can I Expect If I Return to Chiropractic School?

You’ll find students from all types of backgrounds in chiropractic school. In fact, Dreessen recalls many second-career students in his program. He approximates about 30 percent of his classmates had worked in the corporate world or simply decided it was time to make a switch into a holistic health career.

Second-career students were an inspiration to Dreessen, who said his classmates were dedicated and deeply valued their education.

If you’re hesitant to jump back into school, remember the rewards of a working in a career you’ll feel good about.

When you begin researching schools, consider factors like school location and schedule. Will you be spending a lot of time commuting to campus? Do you need to factor child care costs into the total cost of school?

Chiropractor Licensure

The process to become licensed as a chiropractor comes long before you graduate from school. You take Part I of the national exam (administered by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners) during your second year in school. The test includes material on general and spinal anatomy, physiology, pathology, chemistry and microbiology.

You can take Part II, which covers general diagnosis, chiropractic practice and other advanced topics, in your third year of chiropractic college.

Parts III and IV are administered within six to nine months of graduation.

Once you pass the national boards, check with your state board to find out what requirements are needed in order to become licensed.

Becoming a Chiropractor: Running a Business

You’ve earned your diploma and passed all the necessary exams. Now it’s time to run a practice.

“You get to run your own business, but you need to know how to,” Dreessen says.

While some chiropractic schools will touch upon business management in their curriculum, it’s not common to receive an in-depth education on this topic. Dreessen offers his advice on how to get the knowledge you need to succeed on this path.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

According to the American Chiropractic Association, there are 18 nationally-accredited schools in the country. When reviewing programs, look for the seal of approval by the Council on Chiropractic Education.

Now that you’ve learned how to become a chiropractor from a professional in the field, get ready to align your education with your career dreams.

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