The average pay for chiropractors in 2017 was nearly $102,000. With benefits lumped in, that’s almost $137,000. Better yet, the career field is expected to grow 12% by 2026, 5% faster than the national average for employment growth.
How can you start your career as a chiropractor, and what does the career path entail? I spoke with Dr. Lauren Cooper, a chiropractor of six years in Winter Park, Florida, to find out.
What Is the Day-to-Day Like for a Chiropractor?
Before signing up for classes and practicing back adjustments on your body pillow, let’s be sure this career path is right for you. So the basics: What does a chiropractor even do?
Chiropractors are health professionals who use their understanding of the nervous system and spine to reduce pain. But a common misconception, Dr. Cooper tells me, is that chiropractors solely focus on injuries related to the neck and back.
In fact, most of Dr. Cooper’s patients see her for wellness visits, where her primary aim is to ensure her patients’ bodies perform optimally. Dr. Cooper also works with patients suffering from sports injuries or injuries from car accidents, headaches and sinus pressure, and arthritis pain. Per Chiropractic Economics, the average chiropractor works with 131 patients in one week.
“The day-to-day for me is a perfect balance of structure and chaos,” Dr. Cooper explained. “I have structure, as in we open and close at set times, and I have a schedule for the day. But within that structure, there is a big part that is always changing and different. I never know what the day will bring.
“I could have a day where everyone comes in on time and just for wellness visits, or I could have a day where everyone comes in with severe pain. I’ve had days when I come home energized and fulfilled knowing I’ve helped a lot of people, and I’ve had days where I go home and can’t stop thinking about someone and hoping I’ve done enough for them.”
Ultimately, Dr. Cooper stressed that most of her time is spent focusing on her patients. Sure, there is administrative work to do, but her core responsibilities are getting to know her patients and their needs and then working on them to reduce pain and improve wellness. In that way, her job is as much customer service-oriented as it is skill-oriented.
What Are the Skills and Qualities of a Successful Chiropractor?
Because of the focus on her patients, Dr. Cooper highlighted listening skills and empathy as the top traits of a successful chiropractor, even before mentioning the technical skills. “At the end of the day, we all just want to feel like we are being heard,” she said. “There are many chiropractors, and the great ones — the truly successful ones — are the ones who listen.”
In addition to that focus on the patient and the technical know-how, compassion and humor are important, Dr. Cooper said.
“Helping patients navigate through all the information we now have about health can be tricky,” she added. “My ability to lead has grown over the years, and I think my personal journey and confidence have helped me lead others down a healthier path.”
Finally, she explained that a good chiropractor needs to be able to “read someone’s body language because often pain or injury can alter a patient’s psyche.”
The Challenges of Being a Chiropractor
This career path, like most, has its challenges. “Paperwork and documentation can be tedious, and we can have some administrative issues at times,” Dr. Cooper explained. “There are always new medical guidelines and coding changes we have to keep up with.”
Dr. Cooper also mentioned that, even as a smaller practitioner, she sometimes must adjust very tall, well-built athletes, which requires her to be able-bodied. “I exercise, do yoga, eat clean, and go to bed at 9,” she explains. “I practice what I preach to my patients about living healthy.”
Staying fit and healthy is important. Dr. Cooper told me that many good chiropractors are forced to retire because of back or shoulder injuries they get on the job. In fact, just two days before our conversation, she came home exhausted and sore after working with 40 patients in one day.
Another major hurdle is battling the many misconceptions and misinformation that exist about chiropractors. Because they focus on the body’s capacity for self-healing, they are often called “quacks” and their work is sometimes viewed as “voodoo.” Thanks to advances in neuroscience, however, chiropractors have earned a sturdier leg to stand on in recent years, but the battle is still uphill.
Dr. Cooper acknowledged that some critics try to argue that chiropractors are not real doctors because they cannot prescribe medicine. However, their schooling is just as intensive as a traditional medical doctor’s, and, in many states, chiropractors can legally perform physical exams, give eye exams and even deliver babies. Their backgrounds in neuroscience, anatomy and biomechanics make them well-suited for treating a range of patients.
The Rewards of Being a Chiropractor
Despite some challenges on the job, Dr. Cooper loves her career as a chiropractor — and not just because of the job stability, benefits and fantastic pay.
“The biggest reward professionally,” she told me, “is knowing that through the work I do, I am making an impact on someone’s life.”
Dr. Cooper also appreciates that the job keeps her focused on her own health and, more importantly, that she can form a bond with her patients. “[My favorite part of working as a chiropractor is] listening to people’s stories,” she said. “Because my profession is very hands-on, I earn a level of trust with my patients that I feel other types of physicians don’t have. Many of my patients share things with me they often don’t share with anyone else… [My practice has] patients who drive hours and pass several other chiropractors to come to our office. That kind of bond and loyalty is special to me. I take great pride in that.”
How to Become a Chiropractor
If a career as a chiropractor sounds like the right path for you, get ready for a long journey through nearly eight years of school, testing and then more schooling.
Dr. Cooper got her undergraduate degree in Health Science from the University of Central Florida, then attended chiropractic school. “Chiropractic school is hard,” she said. “Some people don’t realize we actually have approximately the same course hours as traditional medical school. The college I attended, Palmer College of Chiropractic, is 3 1/2 years.”
After graduating, you aren’t cleared to begin adjusting patients. You still have to take — and pass — four sequential parts of a national exam. After passing, Dr. Cooper had to take a state exam in Florida, pass a background check and meet other state requirements. Only then was she licensed to work in Florida.
The education doesn’t stop there, however. According to Dr. Cooper, “There is always ongoing education and training. We have a certain number of continuing education requirements every two years. I am working toward a Diplomate of Clinical Nutrition.”
Parting Advice for Future Chiropractors
Chiropractors work hard — and the path to becoming one can be just as challenging. But those who achieve success in the field can look forward to a long career of great pay and the ability to help others improve their health.
Dr. Cooper offered some parting advice for those interested in the career: “First and foremost, become a patient [of a chiropractor] if you aren’t already. Ask to job shadow. Find chiropractic offices that would be willing to [let you] see what it is like. Check out the various chiropractic colleges online. Ask lots of questions.”
If you are looking for a career that requires less schooling, check out our guides for careers as a massage therapist, real estate agent, plumber or dental hygienist.
Timothy Moore is a full-time editor and freelance writer based in Ohio. It was a struggle for him not to load this article with back-to-back puns, but he figured they’d just be a pain in the neck.