What Is Osteopathic Medicine?

Osteopathic physician meets with older patient for primary care

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Osteopathic medicine is a branch of medical practice in the United States that centers around a “whole person” approach to patient treatment, emphasizing preventive care. For example, in osteopathic medicine, the patient’s lifestyle, environment, and well-being are considered, rather than just treating symptoms of an illness.

Founded by a physician in the 19th century, osteopathic medicine is based on the philosophy that all body systems are interconnected and work together to heal illness and maintain good health.

While this form of medicine utilizes all of the latest science and technology that modern medicine offers, it also places a unique focus on the connection between the musculoskeletal system and overall health.

What It Involves

Osteopathic medicine is a distinct yet relatively common part of medical practice within the U.S. healthcare system which emphasizes overall wellness and preventive care. It encompasses all of the traditional components of modern medicine used to diagnose and treat injury or illness, such as prescription drugs, surgery, and other medical technology.

Key principles of osteopathic medicine state that the body’s organ systems are interrelated, and any dysfunction in one of those systems would influence a person’s overall health and function. It also promotes the concept that the human body has the ability to heal itself when structural issues are corrected and balance is restored.

Specifically, osteopathic medicine is based on the following ideas or tenets, as approved by the American Osteopathic Association:

  • “The body is a unit; the person is a unit of body, mind, and spirit.
  • The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance.
  • Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.
  • Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function.”

Osteopathic medicine philosophy highlights the importance of preventive care, treating the whole patient and using osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) on the musculoskeletal system to improve overall health and healing.

Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment

An element that makes osteopathic medicine unique is its focus on the connection between health and the musculoskeletal system, which is the body’s system of muscles, nerves, and bones.

This includes utilizing a hands-on diagnosis and treatment method known as osteopathic manipulative treatment, or OMT. It’s also sometimes referred to as osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM).

OMT entails non-invasive manual techniques for treating structural and functional issues in the bones, joints, tissues, and muscles.

To an outsider, this might look similar to a chiropractic adjustment. But with OMT, osteopathic physicians receive specialized medical training in exactly how to move a patient’s muscles and joints through stretching, gentle pressure, manipulation, and resistance.

The idea behind it is to align the bones and muscles to achieve balance and encourage the body to begin the healing process. While not all osteopathic physicians use OMT regularly, it is a core part of osteopathic medicine.

This method can treat ailments like muscle pain, sports injuries, sinus issues, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, and menstrual pain. Studies have shown that this treatment option can be an effective alternative or complement to medication or other therapies, particularly for lower back pain.

Types of Doctors Who Practice It

Chances are, you’ve probably run into an osteopathic physician at some point. Recent estimates suggest that Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, known as DOs, make up roughly 11% of the American physician population, and that number is growing.

Osteopathic doctors are licensed to practice medicine in all 50 states and can be found in any field—from emergency medicine to oncology to orthopedics.

That said, it’s worth noting that because the principles of osteopathic medicine emphasize treating the whole person, more than half of osteopathic doctors in 2019 served in primary care specialties, such as internal medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics.

Conditions Treated

Osteopathic medicine can be used to treat the full spectrum of medical conditions. However, an osteopathic approach may be particularly beneficial for issues that involve the musculoskeletal and cranial systems.

For example, conditions such as hormone and immune system imbalances, postural imbalances, arthritis, muscle and joint strains, whiplash, and sciatica have the potential to be treated effectively through an osteopathic medicine lens.

Training and Certification

To become a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO), you must have graduated from an osteopathic medical school, completed a residency training in a specialty field, and passed the medical licensing exam required of all doctors in the United States to diagnose and treat patients, prescribe medication, and perform surgery.

Osteopathic medicine is one of the fastest-growing healthcare professions in the United States. There are currently 37 accredited colleges of osteopathic medicine across the country.

While osteopathic medical school covers the same curriculum as an allopathic medical school (the school that a medical doctor, or MD, attends), osteopathic medicine requires an additional 300 to 500 hours of specialized training in the musculoskeletal system—the body’s interconnected system of nerves, bones, and muscle.

This training in osteopathic manipulative treatment allows for a fuller understanding of how an injury or illness in one part of the body affects the body as a whole.

MDs and DOs are both licensed physicians; what differs is the approach and focus of the medical education they receive. Osteopathic medical schools teach osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), a manual therapy that includes gentle manipulation of the musculoskeletal system as a potential part of a treatment plan.

History

Osteopathic medicine was developed by physician Andrew Taylor Still in Missouri in 1874. Still’s experience, research, and observations as a medical doctor led him to shift focus to the musculoskeletal system, wellness, and treating the whole patient as key parts of overall health and well-being.

The term “osteopathy” was coined shortly after, and the first osteopathic medical school was opened in 1892.

In more modern times, osteopathic medicine plays a broader role in health care. Until recently, osteopathic physicians were limited in their residency options, which led many to pursue specialties in family medicine or internal medicine.

This changed in 2014 when osteopathic medical schools started to become accredited under the same governing body that accredits allopathic medical schools.

A Word From Verywell

Osteopathic medicine may not be as familiar as allopathic medicine (the schools that MDs attend), but it’s certainly considered a part of conventional Western medicine. Just don’t get it confused with “naturopathic” medicine, which focuses on the study of “natural” sciences and alternative therapies in addition to basic medical theory.

In some U.S. states, naturopathic physicians can be licensed to practice medicine, which means they may be able to write most prescriptions, but they typically can’t perform surgery and are not always covered by health insurance.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading