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What Is a Chiropractor?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

Chiropractic is a healthcare profession that cares for a patient’s neuromusculoskeletal system — the bones, nerves, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. A chiropractor helps manage back and neck pain through the use of spinal adjustments to maintain good alignment.

Chiropractic is focused on the body’s ability to self-heal and includes other treatments like nutrition and exercise.

By improving the neuromusculoskeletal system’s ability to perform, chiropractors believe the benefits of spinal adjustment and realigning joints improves the functioning of other systems throughout the body.

What Does a Chiropractor Do?

Chiropractors conduct an examination of a patient, looking at the spine’s position and muscle reflexes. They also perform tests and may take x -rays to diagnose the patient’s condition, then come up with a treatment plan and monitor progress. 

Chiropractors do not prescribe pain medication. Instead, they rely on and assist the body's ability to heal itself. A chiropractor’s primary therapy is spinal manipulation where they use hands or instruments to apply force to a joint in the spine, moving the joint in a specific direction for better alignment.

In addition to spinal manipulation, chiropractors may include other treatments such as:

  • Relaxation
  • Stimulation
  • Hot and cold treatment
  • Exercise
  • Diet and weight loss counseling

Sometimes to relieve pain, chiropractors will go further by using massage therapy, ultrasound, braces, and shoe inserts. 

Education and Training

In the United States, the Doctor of Chiropractic degree is usually a four-year program on top of three years of undergraduate study.

All states require a chiropractor to earn a Doctor of Chiropractic degree, pass the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners exam, and obtain a license to practice in that state. Doctoral programs provide studies in life sciences like anatomy and physiology. They also provide supervised experience in making assessments, hands-on spinal adjustment techniques, and business training.

Some states require a background check and exams in that state’s laws about chiropractic. Additionally, as a condition of ongoing licensing, all states require continuing education. 

What Conditions Does a Chiropractor Treat?

Low back pain, neck pain, and headache are the most common problems for which people seek chiropractic adjustment. Chiropractic care is a useful pain management resource. Chiropractors ensure the muscles surrounding the joints are working properly. 

Chiropractors can also treat arthritic joint functioning. Depending on the type of arthritis, the chiropractor may provide gentle manipulation to increase range of motion and reduce muscle spasms.

Reasons to See a Chiropractor

Most adults who do not want to use medication see a chiropractor to manage or eliminate pain in the low back, neck, and head. But there are other reasons patients seek chiropractic care. They include:

  • Preventing disease
  • Increasing energy
  • Strengthening immunity
  • Fostering overall wellbeing

It generally takes six to ten visits to a chiropractor for most people to experience relief. 

What to Expect at the Chiropractor

Your first visit to the chiropractor will begin with an assessment. You will likely be given a list of health questions to complete. Your chiropractor may also want to know if you have a history of migraines and your sleeping patterns, your diet, and if you are physically active.

You will also have a physical exam including your posture, a test of your muscle strength, your arm and leg mobility, and anything out of the ordinary like a shoulder or hip out of alignment.

Your chiropractor may also take an x-ray.

During a Chiropractic Procedure

Your chiropractor is trained in over 150 techniques, most of which rely on gentle manipulation.

To access various areas of your body, your chiropractor may position you in different ways. But usually, you will be on a specially padded chiropractic table, face down for chiropractic adjustments. As your chiropractor realigns your spine or joints using controlled force, you may hear popping and cracking sounds. 

Your chiropractor may place you on a drop table, designed with sections that drop down when pressure is applied to the back. Another piece of equipment your chiropractor may use is known as an activator, a small device that may be used for gentle manipulation.

Following a Chiropractic Procedure

For several days following your visit, you may have a mild headache or feel fatigued, or have soreness in the treated areas. 

On rare occasions following a chiropractic procedure some people experience problems that include:

However, most people experience immediate relief and over time see their health improve. Your chiropractor can provide you with valuable information such as good posture when standing, sleeping, and sitting at a desk. 

You should contact your primary care physician if your chiropractic care does not alleviate your pain or if it gets worse. Also contact your doctor if you notice anything unusual like feeling weak or experiencing numbness.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Arthritis Foundation: “Chiropractic Care for Arthritis.”

Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Chiropractors.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Chiropractic Adjustment.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Chiropractic Adjustment: Risks / Benefits.”

Harvard Medical School: “Should you see a chiropractor for low back pain?”

Kaiser Permanente: “Chiropractic.”

Mayo Clinic: “Chiropractic adjustment.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Chiropractic: In Depth.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Credentialing, Licensing, and Education.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Spinal Manipulation: What You Need To Know.”

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Chiropractic.”

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