Many professionals find it deeply fulfilling and meaningful to work in the healthcare field. Yet, most healthcare jobs are highly demanding, with long shifts and high-stress situations. If you are passionate about healthcare, yet desire a more predictable, lower-stress routine, then becoming a chiropractor could be a good choice for you.
The process of becoming a chiropractor starts with your undergraduate education and continues at a specialized medical school. Use this detailed career guide to begin planning your academic journey toward a rewarding career in chiropractic medicine. Although Grand Canyon University does not offer a chiropractic degree program, you can enroll in one of our other bachelor's programs to gain the foundational knowledge you'll need for chiropractic school later in your studies.
Understanding the Chiropractic Profession
It is common knowledge that chiropractors are qualified to treat back pain. Yet, this is an oversimplification of what they do. A chiropractic physician is a medical professional who specializes in the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disorders, injuries and conditions that affect the neuromusculoskeletal system. This includes bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves all through the body – not just in the spine. In other words, a chiropractor can treat the tenosynovitis in your thumb just as well as the pain in your low back.
Furthermore, chiropractors attend to holistic health – the patient’s overall wellness. Although many patients visit a chiropractor to treat existing pain, chiropractors can also help patients prevent pain. They can accomplish this by aligning the body and educating individuals about ergonomics to maintain healthy posture and movement.
To help their patients achieve better health, chiropractors have many tools available. Their most well-known treatment is the spinal adjustment (and adjustment of other joints), which can provide rapid relief of symptoms. However, some chiropractors also become trained in and use adjunctive therapies, including transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), ultrasound therapy, massage therapy and rehabilitative exercise. They can also help patients lead a healthier lifestyle by educating them about nutrition, exercise and sleep habits.
An Overview of Steps to Becoming a Chiropractor
If you are still in high school, you can take steps now to begin working toward your future career. Talk to your school guidance counselor about taking more science, math and health-related courses. Some high schools offer anatomy and physiology classes, for example, which would be ideal for an aspiring chiropractor. You may also wish to explore job shadowing opportunities so that you can get an insider’s look at what a typical day looks like for a chiropractor.
Once you are ready to apply to college, choose a program that will support your career ambitions. There is no single undergraduate degree that aspiring chiropractors must earn. However, the program you select should emphasize math and science courses, particularly physical and life sciences such as biology. One major to consider is an athletic training program. A pre-med program is also a good alternative.
Are the steps to 1. Get your bachelor's degree then 2. Apply for chiropractic school? If so, I think we need to add a few more details here to make this more clear.
In a nutshell: Earn a bachelor's degree that best fits with your interests and the requirements of your chiropractic school of choice. Go to chiropractic school to earn your Doctor of Chiropractic degree and then apply for state licensure.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Chiropractor?
It takes at least seven to eight years to become a chiropractor.2 Some chiropractic schools accept students with three years of undergraduate education, but there is a growing preference for applicants with an undergraduate degree. In any case, once you have invested the effort to complete three years of a bachelor’s degree program, it makes sense to finish the full four years and reap the higher qualifications and professional respect. Further, a bachelor’s degree may be required in some states.
Once you begin chiropractic school, you can expect four more years of intense study and hands-on practice. You will then need to pass the licensing exam to be legally allowed to practice. Since you can take the exam shortly after you graduate, this step should not add a significant amount of time to the process.
Earning Your Undergraduate Degree
You will begin your journey to becoming a chiropractor by enrolling in a related undergraduate program. You will need a Bachelor’s degree in science, ideally in a medical science field. Two popular options are the Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training and the Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Medicine degree. Either of these degrees will give you the foundational knowledge in physical and life sciences that you will need for admission to a chiropractic college.
Before you choose a program, consider whether you might want to obtain an advanced chiropractic certification in a subspecialty. The American Chiropractic Association (ACA) recognizes various certification boards that offer specialty certificates in areas such as pediatrics, sports medicine and clinical nutrition.3 Working toward a specialty certificate can sometimes begin in college. For example, if sports medicine appeals to you, a degree in athletic training would be an appropriate choice.
Regardless of the emphasis of the program you choose, you can expect an immersive experience in the physical and life sciences. Students can typically expect to study anatomy, physiology, biology, biochemistry and pathophysiology. Pre-med students will focus more on pharmacology and microbiology, while athletic training students will take courses in kinesiology and the prevention, recognition and treatment of injury.
Despite the demanding nature of an athletic training or pre-med curriculum, there is value in declaring a minor. Many chiropractors launch their own practices at some point in their career. If this level of autonomy appeals to you, some coursework in business and management may repay the extra effort. Look for classes on topics such as entrepreneurial studies, accounting and business administration. Even if you do not declare a minor in this area, you may want to take courses as electives.
Earning Your Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) Degree
Chiropractic school requires four years of intensive study. The details of the curriculum vary from one school to the next. In general, you can expect to learn about the philosophy and methodology of chiropractic medicine, the science of wellness and the chiropractic techniques that heal patients.
Many incoming chiropractic students are surprised to learn how much of the curriculum overlaps with that of a medical school. Chiropractic students take foundational classes such as biochemistry, anatomy, physiology and radiology (chiropractors must often take x-rays or interpret other medical images). In addition, they study the clinical care of patients with neuromusculoskeletal dysfunctions, disorders and injuries.
One major difference is that chiropractic schools teach pharmacology depending on the degree. This is because chiropractors are not authorized to prescribe medications. Indeed, that would be contrary to the philosophy of chiropractic, as it is an alternative to drugs and surgery. Pharmacology is in fact part of the course walk for chiropractic degree programs versus a medical degree where it is not. The amount of pharmacology credits taken for the DC program is not nearly the same as MD programs, but none the less, DC programs do take pharmacology.4
Like medical school, chiropractic school is a blend of classroom instruction and hands-on practice during internships and clinical rotations. During your clinical rotations, you will initially be an observer, watching closely as a licensed chiropractor assesses, diagnoses and treats patients. Then, you will have the opportunity to assist the chiropractor. In time, you will perform the assessments, diagnoses and treatments yourself under the supervision of a licensed chiropractor.
Tips for Succeeding in Chiropractic School
There is no question that these will be four challenging years, but the rigor of the curriculum is necessary to graduate well-qualified doctors who can expertly diagnose and treat patients. Here are a few steps you can take to be optimally prepared upon graduation.
Become Well-Grounded in Chiropractic Philosophy
Although chiropractic school will teach you everything you need to know, you can go a step further to enhance your confidence and perspective. Take the time to seek out reading material beyond the texts listed on your syllabi. Consider reading works by chiropractic professionals, such as Virgil Strang, Heidi Haavik and Terry Rondberg.
Look for Outreach Opportunities
Chiropractic students are often needed to volunteer at their schools’ outreach initiatives, such as health fairs and screenings. These venues offer invaluable opportunities to practice fielding questions and explaining how chiropractic medicine works. These skills that will serve you with prospective clients, especially those who have never been to a chiropractor before.
Sign up for a Toastmasters Group
Communication skills are important for chiropractors, and Toastmasters can help you polish both your verbal and body language. This is especially beneficial if you decide to start your own chiropractic business one day, and you need to market it. That may involve such actions as giving a talk at your local downtown business association.
Network With a Purpose
Networking strikes many students as something vague and poorly defined that they know they should do without being quite sure how. There are many ways to develop a professional network. For chiropractic students, one of the best is simply to take the initiative to call local chiropractic offices.
Explain that you are a student and would appreciate the opportunity to visit their office for a quick tour. While there, take notes about the practice’s policies, layout, procedures and so on. What you learn can guide you later when you set up a practice of your own. The relationships you build will flourish if you remember to send a thank you card to each office you visit – and perhaps a fruit basket!
Developing the Skills and Characteristics of an Effective Chiropractor
Aspiring chiropractors are often drawn to this specialty because they have a strong desire to help other people achieve better health. Quite often, they possess great empathy and can understand what their patients are going through. In addition to empathy, other characteristics and skills of an effective chiropractor include the following:
- Attention to detail: Chiropractors must be observant when interacting with patients. Often, patients’ posture or behavior is just as informative as what they say. For instance, a chiropractor might notice that a patient with shoulder pain yawns frequently. This can tell the chiropractor that the patient’s pain might be interfering with sleep and that the patient may benefit from recommendations for improving sleep quality. Posture can also be an indication of what needs adjusting.
- Dexterity: Manual dexterity is a must for all chiropractors, as they rely on their hands to perform spinal palpations and adjustments.
- Interpersonal skills: As with other healthcare professionals, establishing a rapport with patients is essential for chiropractors.
- Business sense: Many chiropractors run their own practices. They must know the basics of business administration, accounting, employee management and other office tasks.
Finally, chiropractors need ethical decision-making skills. They are responsible for determining the most appropriate course of treatment for patients. Chiropractors must also recognize when a patient would be best helped by another healthcare professional and provide referrals as needed.
Obtaining State Licensure to Practice as a Chiropractor
After you graduate from an accredited chiropractic school, there are just a few more requirements to complete the process of becoming a chiropractor. Every state requires chiropractors to be licensed before they practice. Most states have their own chiropractic regulatory board, and you can check the details of your state’s licensing requirements there.
In general, you will need to pass the national board exam, which is administered by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners. The exam consists of four parts. They are as follows:
- Part I: Basic Sciences
- Part II: Clinical Sciences
- Part III: Clinical Competency
- Part IV: Practical Skills
If you wish, you can complete portions of the exam while still a chiropractic student. To take Part I, you must be at least a second-year student and have the approval of your school’s registrar. Part II can be taken in your third year with approval from your registrar. To take Part III, you must be no further than nine months from your graduation date. Part IV eligibility necessitates being either a graduate or within six months of your graduation date.
If you have already graduated from chiropractic school without taking any parts of the exam, there is no cause for worry. You can always take the entire exam after graduation.
The national board allows candidates to retake the exam as many times as needed to achieve a passing grade. However, be aware that some states may impose limitations. Some states may also require candidates to have achieved a particular minimum score on the exam.
There may be additional requirements to obtain licensure in the state in which you plan to practice. For example, Arizona requires candidates to undergo a criminal background investigation and pass the jurisprudence examination to demonstrate an understanding of applicable state law.5 New York requires candidates to undergo specialized training to allow them to identify and report suspected cases of child abuse.6
Once you have completed all your state’s requirements and successfully obtained your chiropractic license, you will be legally allowed to use the titles Chiropractic Physician, Doctor of Chiropractic or DC.
Grand Canyon University’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions is a top choice among future chiropractors, nurses and other aspiring healthcare professionals. Students who are interested in becoming chiropractic professionals can apply to enroll in the Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training program or the Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Medicine program. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen and begin exploring your future at GCU.
1The Association of Chiropractic Colleges, Academic Requirements, Entrance Requirements in March 2021.
2National Board of Chiropractic Examiners, Chiropractic Education in March 2021.
3American Chiropractic Association, American Board of Chiropractic Specialties (ABCS) in March 2021.
4National University of Health Sciences, Trimester-by-Trimester Curriculum, in March 2021.
5State of Arizona, Board of Chiropractic Examiners, Frequently Asked Questions in March 2021.
6New York State Education Department, Office of the Professions, License Requirements in March 2021.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.