What Is an Osteopath?

How an Osteopathic Doctor (DO) Differs From an MD

An osteopath is a physician trained in osteopathic medicine. Osteopaths treat and prevent illness through the manipulation and massage of bones, joints, and muscles. Treatment aims to improve health by positively impacting the body’s nervous, circulatory, and lymphatic systems.

Osteopathic doctors represent less than 10% of practicing physicians in the United States today. Most osteopaths specialize in family or internal medicine. However, you can find licensed osteopaths who specialize in rheumatology, gynecology, and even surgery in all 50 states. 

This article explains what an osteopathic doctor (or DO) is and how they are trained. It also details what osteopathic treatment entails and the difference between osteopathy and naturopathy.

what is an osteopath
Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Training

An osteopathic physician is a licensed medical practitioner who was trained in the field of "osteopathic medicine." A "Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine" has the initials "DO" after his or her name.

Like an "MD," an osteopathic physician is a fully trained and licensed physician. DOs and MDs are considered equal, legally, and in terms of their authority to diagnose and treat various health conditions, prescribe medications, and perform surgery.

The difference between an MD and a DO is in the approach and focus of the medical education they receive. Both DOs and MDs need an undergraduate degree, plus at least four years of medical school. 

The osteopathic medical school emphasizes the whole person and the connection between the musculoskeletal system and disease and symptoms. Osteopathic physicians cover the same curriculum as MDs at osteopathic medical schools. They also receive an additional 300 to 500 hours of specialized osteopathic training, studying the musculoskeletal system.

DOs and MDs then need to typically complete a two- to six-year internship/residency program, pass state licensing exams, and obtain continuing education to remain certified. Like MDs, DOs can specialize in particular areas of medicine.

According to the American Osteopathic Association, there were more than 140,000 licensed osteopathic physicians practicing in the U.S as of 2022. 

Medical Specialties

Osteopathic medical schools tend to emphasize primary care training, so more than half of the osteopathic physicians in practice end up in the fields of pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology, and internal medicine.

Some osteopathic physicians function primarily in a conventional capacity, offering traditional diagnosis and treatment.

Others incorporate more of the hands-on osteopathic approaches. Cranial and musculoskeletal systems manipulation and massage help restore balance and relieve neurological, respiratory, digestive, and other symptoms.

Osteopathic Manipulation

Osteopathic manipulation treatment (OMT) is a hands-on therapy that applies gentle pressure to manipulate the muscles, soft tissues, and joints. OMT is often used to treat lower back pain, but it has a wide array of other benefits. 

Osteopathic manipulation therapy is used to treat:

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Carpel tunnel syndrome
  • Chronic pain
  • Constipation
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Menstrual pain
  • Migraines
  • Neck pain
  • Pregnancy discomfort
  • Sinus infections
  • Sports injuries

Osteopathic manipulations are done standing, seated, or lying down. You may hear a popping or cracking sound during a manipulation. The sound is not your bones cracking or popping into place. It is caused by the release of gas bubbles in the synovial fluid between the joints.

Benefits of Seeing an Osteopath

The benefits of seeing an osteopathic physician depend on your health condition, the type of approach that is most effective for you, and of course, as with any physician, on the particular doctor's focus, personality, and level of expertise.

As noted, some osteopathic physicians focus on musculoskeletal issues. Osteopathic medicine can be especially helpful for patients with postural imbalances, arthritis, muscle and joint strains, sciatica pain, and other health challenges. Osteopaths even benefit from conditions like whiplash.

Some osteopathic physicians specialize in more primary care, while others focus on hormone balance and immune health.

Because osteopathic physicians are trained to explore your health from the perspective of your complete body—not just a particular disease or condition—you may get more effective care from an osteopathic physician for conditions that involve complex hormone and immune system imbalances. 

Osteopathic vs. Naturopathic Physicians

Some people get confused between osteopathic physicians and naturopathic physicians. Osteopathic physicians are physicians and, like MDs, can be licensed to practice medicine and perform surgery in all 50 states of the U.S. 

With attendance at a reputable naturopathic medical school and licensing and certifications, naturopathic physicians can be licensed to practice medicine—including the writing of most prescriptions—in some (but not all) states in the U.S. Even in states that license naturopaths as full physicians, naturopaths are typically not licensed to perform surgery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is osteopathic medicine different than traditional medicine?

    In most respects, they are the same. Both traditional medicine, also known as allopathic medicine, and osteopathic medicine focus on treating symptoms and diseases with medication and surgery. But osteopathic medicine also includes theories about the musculoskeletal system's role in diseases. 

  • Is a doctor of osteopathy a real doctor?

    Yes, a doctor of osteopathy, or DO, is a real doctor. DOs and MDs are considered equals. Both are fully trained and licensed physicians with the same level of authority to diagnose and treat medical conditions, prescribe medication, and perform surgery. 

  • What is the difference between an osteopath and a chiropractor?

    Osteopaths are fully licensed physicians who can prescribe medications, whereas chiropractors are not. Chiropractors are limited to working on the spine and back, while osteopaths are trained and licensed to treat the whole body. Like chiropractors, osteopaths employ spinal manipulation to treat conditions.

  • Can an osteopath treat a pinched nerve?

    Yes, osteopaths treat compressed (pinched) nerves using osteopathic manipulation. Common nerve problems that can be alleviated with manipulation therapy include:

    • Carpel tunnel syndrome
    • Cervical radiculopathy
    • Sciatica
    • Tennis elbow
  • Do osteopaths crack bones?

    No, an osteopath does not crack your bones. Osteopathic manipulations are used to restore joint alignment. In layman's terms, osteopathic manipulation is sometimes called cracking your back or cracking your joints.

    A manipulation adjusts the spine and different joints. During this process, there is a change in pressure in the synovial fluid that lines the joints. You may hear a popping or cracking sound as gas bubbles are released.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. American Osteopathic Association. Osteopathic Medical Professional Report, 2022.

  4. Kids Health. What's a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine?

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Osteopathic manipulation treatment.

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  7. American Osteopathic Association. Discover the DO Difference.

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  9. NIH: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Pinched nerve.