DO vs. Chiropractor: Similarities And Differences

October 13, 2023


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 10/13/23

There are more medical career paths than becoming a DO or MD. In this guide, we’ll evaluate the chiropractic career path and how it compares to a doctor of osteopathic medicine’s tract. 

As you prepare for a rewarding career in healthcare, you may notice there are more options than pursuing a traditional MD (Doctor of Medicine) degree. When most people think of physicians, they think of MDs who undergo four years of medical school and additional clinical training.

However, there are other career paths to consider. You can go to an osteopathic medical school instead to become a DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). Alternatively, if you are interested in spinal health and the manipulation of skeletal structures, you can become a non-medical DC (Doctor of Chiropractic).

What is a DO? What is a DC? And what are the similarities and differences between a DO vs chiropractor? 

To learn more about the similarities and differences between osteopathic medicine vs chiropractic, such as the philosophy of providing treatment, education, application process, career outlook, and tips for choosing which path is right for you, read on. 

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What is a DO?

A DO is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. DOs are awarded their credentials after attending an osteopathic medical school and becoming licensed to practice medicine. Like MDs, DOs match into a residency, undergo clinical training and work side-by-side with MDs in many settings such as hospitals, clinics, institutions, and private practices. 

Like MDs, DOs are fully licensed to practice and prescribe medications, diagnose illnesses, and perform surgeries. The main difference between DOs and MDs, aside from initials and where they went to medical school, is in philosophy. While MDs treat disease and symptoms, DOs primarily focus on the whole-body approach, prioritizing holistic treatment options. 

DOs are knowledgeable about conventional medical treatments and use them regularly for patient care. In addition to conventional treatment options, DOs provide hands-on, manipulative techniques that aid the entire body’s healing processes. 

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) Doctor of Medicine (MD) DOs and MDs
Holistic approach to patient care that prioritizes the whole body. Symptom resolution approach to patient care that prioritizes disease. Prescribe medications
Osteopathic medical school. Allopathic medical school Order follow-up testing.
OMM incorporation (osteopathic manipulative medicine). Adherence to allopathy. Work in various medical specialties and clinical settings.
Fully licensed.
Eligible for board certification.

What is a Chiropractor?

A DC, or chiropractor, is a non-medical professional in healthcare, focused with spinal and musculoskeletal health. Chiropractors diagnose and locate misaligned or displaced vertebrae and use manual manipulation to adjust the spine/skeletal structures. 

Chiropractors cannot prescribe drugs, perform surgery, or practice osteopathy, obstetrics, or any other branch of medicine. Chiropractors don’t attend medical school and are not licensed physicians.

DO vs. Chiropractor: Philosophy

According to the AACOM (American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine), osteopathic physicians uphold the principles and philosophy of osteopathy. DOs are trained to see a patient’s whole body rather than a system of organs that may become injured or diseased separately. DOs implement holistic approaches to healthcare, addressing all aspects of the patient and their symptoms.

The AACOM lists the following osteopathic principles:

“1. The body is a unit; the person is a unit of body, mind, and spirit.

2. The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance.

3. Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.

4. Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function.”

It’s important to note that just because DOs receive training in OMM and other holistic treatments, they are not the only treatment plans that DOs use on their patients. Again, DOs are fully licensed medical physicians, just like their MD counterparts. DOs also prescribe medications, order x-rays, complete charts, order and analyze lab work, perform surgeries as needed, and complete all the same tasks as MDs.

Chiropractic has a similar philosophy and principles to DOs: chiropractors also value holistic treatments, but their focus is on spinal and musculoskeletal health, including the overall wellbeing of the nervous system. DCs maintain the spine’s integrity by doing manual adjustments on skeletal structures. 

Chiropractors are not physicians and cannot prescribe medications or perform medical treatments. Therefore, chiropractic is considered alternative medicine that is completely drug-free, including pain management.

According to the ACA (American Chiropractic Association), DCs uphold the following values:

“1. We model excellence in patient-centered, evidence-based care.

2. We serve our patients in the interest of public health.

3. We participate in the health care community through collaboration and integration.

4. We strive for excellence both personally and professionally.”

DO vs. Chiropractor: Application and Education

DOs must attend an accredited osteopathic medical school for four years. Every school has its own curriculum, so there may be variations in course offerings and learning methods. However, the AACOM provides a general guideline of what to expect at an osteopathic medical school:

Year 1
Year 2
Anatomy Gerontology
Physiology Cardiology
Clinical Skills Gastrointestinal System
Radiology Hematopoietic System
Osteopathic Principles and Practices Osteopathic Principles and Practices
Microbiology and Immunology Pharmacology
Neuroscience Endocrinology
Histology Psychiatry
Biochemistry Respiratory
Pathology Ethics and Jurisprudence
Doctor/Patient Communication Family Medicine
Genitourinary System
Reproductive System
Pediatrics/Growth and Development

Core Clinical Clerkships(Years 3 and 4) Other Clinical Clerkships(Years 3 and 4)
Emergency Medicine Anesthesiology
Family Medicine Cardiology
Internal Medicine Dermatology
Obstetrics and Gynecology Gastroenterology
Osteopathic Principles and Practices Laboratory Medicine
Pediatrics Nephrology
Psychiatry and Behavioral Science Neurology
Surgery Oncology and Hematology
Pediatric Subspecialties
Public Health
Pulmonary Medicine
Rural Medicine
Surgical Subspecialties

To apply to osteopathic medical schools, you will need to use their centralized online application service, the AACOMAS (American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service). Deadlines vary for each school, so be sure to verify application timelines, but in general, AACOMAS opens in May and applications are submitted in June.

Licensed DCs must attend a four-year chiropractic school, which is not the same as medical school, although they do receive extensive training for their profession. According to the US News & World Report, chiropractic students learn:

  • The philosophy and science of chiropractic techniques.
  • Clinical studies combined with holistic perspectives to understand neuro-musculoskeletal disorders.
  • Radiology and x-rays.
  • Functions of the nervous system, the brain, the spine, the spinal cord, and the skeletal system.
  • Chiropractic treatments, including hands-on alignments, adjustments, and manipulations for overall health and wellbeing.

There is no centralized application service for chiropractic schools, so it is recommended that you research the application requirements for the 19 accredited chiropractic colleges in the United States. Every school has its own requirements, admissions guidelines, and timelines. Here is an example of the application requirements for Palmer College of Chiropractic:

All applicants must:

  • "Pay the $100 non-refundable application fee.
  • Submit the online application or mail the application to: Office of College Admissions Palmer College of Chiropractic 1000 Brady Street Davenport, IA 52803-5287 USA
  • Submit a one- to two-page typed autobiographical essay explaining why you’re choosing a career in chiropractic and why you want to get your Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.
  • Submit official transcripts where any college-level courses were taken (send to the Davenport address above).
  • Submit two letters of recommendation on official letterhead – one from a doctor of chiropractic and one from a college faculty member. (This is required for Florida-campus students and recommended for Davenport and West campuses.)
  • Although not required at the time of application, applicants will have to submit a tuition deposit and complete their background check authorization and admissions interview before acceptance."

International students must also submit:

  • "National Association letter of approval (if needed)
  • TOEFL score or proof of English proficiency
  • Certification of finances
  • Disclosure statement of any criminal convictions"

How to gain provisional acceptance:

"While you wait for acceptance, you may gain provisional acceptance by completing or submitting the following:

  • Application fee
  • 60-semester units of overall coursework
  • A minimum overall GPA of 2.75
  • Major declared if seeking degree
  • A completed transfer form (if you have attended another chiropractic college)”

DO vs. Chiropractor: Practice, Lifestyle, Career Outlook, and Salary

As previously stated, the scope of practice and lifestyle differ between a DO and a chiropractor. DOs are licensed to practice medicine. Chiropractors are only licensed to practice chiropractic.

DOs work in all types of clinical settings, sometimes side-by-side with MDs. You can find DOs in public hospitals, private and family practices, research centers, clinics, and surgical settings. Chiropractors have their own practices, are part of a group practice, and/or make house calls. Occasionally, chiropractors work in hospitals. 

DOs have a comparable salary to MDs, and the US News & World Report states that the median annual salary for physicians is around $208,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for chiropractors is about $75,380 

Which is Better? Tips for Choosing Between the Two

So, now that you know the similarities and differences between a DO and a DC, which is better? To make an informed decision, answer the following questions:

1. What are my personal philosophies and principles in healthcare?

2. What profession closely aligns with my philosophies and principles?

3. Do I want to become a licensed physician, or would I be happier providing non-medical, hands-on care?

4. Do I want to attend four years of medical school and two to eight years of residency? Or would I like to complete a non-medical education in four years?

5. Does the career outlook and salary of a DO appeal to me? Does the career outlook and salary of a chiropractor appeal to me?

6. What subjects am I most interested in? Which profession closely aligns with my educational interests?

Reflecting on your answers will lead you toward the right career path. Only you can make this decision, so be sure to be honest with yourself in terms of your goals and perspectives.

You should also consider what you want to learn. For example, if topics such as viral infections, bacterial illnesses, and surgery appeal to you, then maybe you should become a doctor of osteopathy. If topics such as pain management and non-invasive procedures appeal to you, then perhaps chiropractic is the way to go.  

Chiropractor vs DO: FAQs

1. How many years of training do DOs complete?

DOs must complete four years of undergraduate school to obtain a bachelor’s degree, four years of osteopathic medical school to obtain a DO degree, a one-year internship, and two to eight years of residency, depending on the specialty. Additionally, DOs complete over 500 hours of manual medicine training (OMM). 

2. How many years of training do chiropractors complete?

Chiropractors must complete 90 semester hours of undergraduate coursework (most programs require a bachelor’s degree), four years of chiropractic school, and over 500 hours of manual medicine training. Chiropractors do not attend medical school or complete a residency, although there are post-graduate certifications and subspecialties that DCs can pursue if desired. 

3. What are the top osteopathic medical schools?

According to the US News & World Report, the three schools that received a numerical ranking of the best medical schools in primary care are the following:

#17 (tie) Midwestern University - Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine

#57 University of North Texas Health Science Center - Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine

#80 (tie) Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine

4. Where can I attend an accredited chiropractic school?

To become a licensed chiropractor, you must attend a chiropractic college that is accredited by the CCE (Council on Chiropractic Education). There are 19 chiropractic colleges in the United States. You can find more information about them at the American Chiropractic Association

5. What treatments are chiropractors licensed to use?

Chiropractors are licensed to do spinal and other skeletal adjustments and alignments. They can also recommend exercise routines, nutrition plans, and lifestyle goals that improve clients’ quality of life.

These treatments prioritize general spinal/musculoskeletal health. Treatments address back pain, neck pain, and headaches. Treatments do not include medications or surgeries, as chiropractors are not doctors. 

6. What conditions are commonly treated with OMM?

Conditions commonly treated with OMM include a range of illnesses in the following areas: dental, digestive, ear, nose, throat, genetic, genitourinary, neurological, orthopedic, pediatric, pregnancy, psychiatric, respiratory, somatic, and complex conditions such as autoimmune illnesses. 

7. What licensing exams do DOs and DCs take to receive licensure and practice?

DOs must pass the COMLEX I, II, IICS, and III. Most DOs also take the USMLE (I & II) for different residency options.

DCs must pass the National Board of Chiropractic Exam (NBCE): Parts I, II, III, IV (practical) and state boards. Specialists require additional written and practical board exams, depending on the specialty and certification requirements.

8. What do DOs and DCs specialize in?

DOs apply to the same specialty residencies as MDs and match into their residencies. 

Chiropractors can specialize in orthopedics, pediatrics, general rehabilitation, internal disorders, radiology, neurology, nutrition, occupational health, sports medicine, and the forensic sciences. Review the ABCS (American Board of Chiropractic Specialties) for more information about recognized board certifications. 

DO or DC: Where Are You Headed?

Whether you decide to become a DO or a DC, both are excellent career paths if you want to help people but don’t necessarily want to attend a traditional allopathic medical school to become an MD.

To make the right choice, consider the different philosophies of osteopathic medicine and chiropractic. Which philosophy aligns with your views and goals as a healthcare professional? 

Also, consider the education and training needed to become a DO or chiropractor. How many years of school and training are you ready to commit to? Look to the future and compare the practice, lifestyle, career outlook, and salary. 

No matter which direction you pursue, becoming a DO or a chiropractor will lead to a rewarding career that helps people heal.

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