How to Become a Spine Surgeon

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Like the frame of a house, the skeletal system is a critical component of the human body. The spine provides vertical support and attachment points for many muscles, ligaments and tendons. When an individual's spine is injured or degenerates, that person's health can suffer in major ways. Enter the spine surgeon, who can be a neurosurgeon or an orthopedic surgeon. Becoming either is a demanding -- and expensive -- process.

Get an Early Start

  • The first steps on the road to becoming a spine surgeon might actually be taken in high school. High school chemistry, algebra, physics and biology can lay the groundwork for future studies. Once you graduate, you must obtain a bachelor’s degree to enter medical school. Although your bachelor’s degree can be in almost any subject, you must still complete the prerequisites for medical school. This means taking electives such as college chemistry, biology, English and math.

Other Considerations

  • Entrance to medical school is extremely competitive. A high score on the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT, can help open doors, and volunteer work in health care is another plus. You’ll need letters of recommendation, as well as your transcripts. Medical school admissions committees look for both academic prowess and evidence of other qualities, such as leadership. Determine how you will finance your education, as it doesn’t come cheap. The American Association of Medical Colleges notes that public medical schools cost an average of $162,736 for four years in 2013; private schools cost an average of $181,058 for four years.

Learning the Basics

  • Neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons follow a similar course throughout medical school. They spend two years on the basics, such as human anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and the study of disease. In the third and fourth years, students begin clinical rotations, or clerkships, under the supervision of experienced physicians. At this point, you learn how to collect a medical history, perform a physical examination and make a medical diagnosis. Although you’re aiming for a specialty focusing on the spine, you still need a good grounding in all aspects of medicine, such as reproductive issues, heart disease and pediatrics.

Finishing Up

  • Residency is the point at which neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons begin to travel different paths. Both begin their residencies with one year of general surgical training, according to the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Orthopedic surgeons then complete five years of training in all types of orthopedic surgery, such as repairing fractures and replacing joints. Neurosurgeons spend six years in residency, where they learn procedures such as craniotomies. Both learn the basics of operating on spines. Either might go on for a specialty fellowship, an extended period of training in spinal surgery. Most surgeons also choose to become board-certified.

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