What is a chiropractor?

If you have an aching back or a stiff neck, you might benefit from chiropractic adjustment. Chiropractors are trained medical professionals who use their hands to relieve pain in the spine and other areas of the body.

Are chiropractors doctors, though? Here’s more information about what these providers do, the training they receive, and what you can expect at your first appointment.

Certification and training

Chiropractors do not hold medical degrees, so they aren’t medical doctors. They do have extensive training in chiropractic care and are licensed practitioners.

Chiropractors begin their education by getting an undergraduate degree with a focus in the sciences. After graduation, they move on to a four-year chiropractic program with both classes and hands-on experience. All states in the United States require that chiropractors obtain a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from a Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE) accredited college.

Some chiropractors choose to specialize in a certain area. They do an additional residency that lasts between two and three years. There are over 100 different chiropractic methods. No one method is necessarily better than another. Some chiropractors choose to specialize in several different areas, which they may describe as using “diversified” or “integrated” techniques.

Regardless of specialty, all chiropractors must obtain a license to practice by taking an exam. They must also keep current in the field by taking regular continuing education classes.

Treatment

There are over 70,000 licensed chiropractors working in the United States today. These practitioners treat various issues and conditions involving the:

  • muscles
  • tendons
  • ligaments
  • bones
  • cartilage
  • nervous system

During treatment, your provider performs what are called manipulations using their hands or small instruments. The manipulations to the different parts of the body help with a range of discomforts, including:

  • neck pain
  • back pain
  • pelvic pain
  • arm and shoulder pain
  • leg and hip pain

You may be surprised to learn that chiropractors can treat conditions ranging from constipation to infant colic to acid reflux.

Pregnant women may even seek chiropractic care near delivery time. Chiropractors specializing in the Webster technique work to realign the pelvis, which may help baby get into a good position (head down) for vaginal delivery.

Learn more: Chiropractor while pregnant: What are the benefits? »

Overall, chiropractors may work to provide holistic treatment, meaning they are treating the whole body and not just the specific ache or pain. Treatment is typically ongoing. You will likely see your chiropractor more than once or twice to manage your condition.

What to expect

Your first visit to the chiropractor will likely consist of giving your medical history and having a physical exam. Your provider may even call for additional tests, like an X-ray, to rule out fractures and other conditions.

From there, your chiropractor may start with the adjustment. You’ll likely sit or lie down on a specially designed, padded table for the treatment. You may be directed to move into different positions throughout the appointment, so the chiropractor can treat specific areas of your body. Don’t be surprised if you hear popping or cracking sounds as your chiropractor applies controlled pressure to your joints.

Learn more: What is spinal manipulation? »

Wear loose fitting, comfortable clothing to your appointment, and remove jewelry before the practitioner begins. In most cases, a chiropractor can perform all of the necessary adjustments without you needing to change out of your clothing into a hospital gown.

After your appointment, you may experience headaches or feel tired. The areas your chiropractor manipulated may also feel sore for a while after treatment. These side effects are mild and temporary.

Sometimes your chiropractor will prescribe corrective exercises for you to do outside of your appointments. Your practitioner may also give you lifestyle advice, like nutrition and exercise suggestions. They may incorporate complementary medicine, like acupuncture or homeopathy, into your treatment plan as well. The scope of what a chiropractor’s license allows them to do varies by state.

Risks

What are the risks?

  1. You may feel sore or tired after your appointment.
  2. Stroke is a rare complication.
  3. Chiropractic adjustments may cause nerve compression or disk herniation. This is rare, but possible.

There are very few risks of chiropractic adjustment when it’s performed by a licensed professional. In rare cases, you might experience compression of nerves or disk herniation in the spine. Stroke is another rare, but serious, complication that can happen after neck manipulation.

There are also conditions for which you shouldn’t necessarily seek chiropractic care. For example, talk to your primary care doctor before seeing a chiropractor if you’ve experienced numbness or loss of strength in an arm or leg.

Other conditions that may require different treatment include:

  • spinal instability
  • severe osteoporosis
  • spinal cancer
  • elevated risk of stroke

If you don’t know if chiropractic treatment is appropriate for your condition, ask your doctor.

Finding a chiropractor

Finding a good chiropractor may be as easy as asking around. Your primary care physician or even a friend may be able to point you in the right direction. You can also use the Find a Doctor tool on the American Chiropractic Association’s website to find licensed chiropractors across the United States.

Insurance

Years ago, chiropractic care was included in many health insurance plans. These days, not all medical insurance carriers cover these appointments. Before making your first appointment, call your health insurance provider directly to find out your plan’s coverage, as well as copays or deductibles. Your insurance provider may also require a referral from your primary care practitioner.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine reported in 2002 that over 75 percent of private health insurers, 50 percent of health maintenance organizations (HMOs), and nearly all workers’ compensation systems covered chiropractic care. Over two dozen states also cover chiropractic appointments through Medicare.

Without coverage, your first appointment may cost around $160, depending on the tests you need. Follow-up appointments may range between $50 and $90 each. The cost will depend on your area and the treatments you receive.

Should I see a chiropractor?

A licensed chiropractor may be able to help you if you’re experiencing pain in your:

  • neck
  • spine
  • arms
  • legs

If your symptoms do not get better after several weeks, you may want to reevaluate your treatment plan.

Questions to ask

Before you start chiropractic treatment, you may want to ask your practitioner the following questions:

  • What is your education and licensure? How long have you been practicing?
  • What are your areas of specialty? Do you have specific training dealing with my medical condition(s)?
  • Are you willing to work with my primary care doctor or refer me to a specialist, if necessary?
  • Are there any risks in performing chiropractic adjustments with my medical condition(s)?
  • What health insurances do you work with? If my insurance doesn’t cover treatment, what are my out-of-pocket costs?

Be sure to tell your chiropractor about any prescription and over-the-counter medications or supplements you are taking. It’s also a good idea to mention any other complementary health treatments you’re using. Giving your chiropractor all this information upfront will make your care safer and more effective.