What Is an Osteopath?

Should you see an osteopathic physician in general? It's important to first understand what an osteopathic physician does, and the focus of this type of medicine, and how it compares to an allopathic medical school. 

what is an osteopath
Verywell / Ellen Lindner


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. 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, plus, they receive an additional 300 to 500 hours of specialized osteopathic training, studying the musculoskeletal system.

DOs and MDs then need to complete typically 2-6 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.

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, using the cranial and musculoskeletal systems to help restore balance and relieve neurological, respiratory, digestive, and other symptoms.

According to the American Osteopathic Association, there were more than 121,000 osteopathic physicians practicing in the U.S as of 2019. 

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 with 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, and those osteopathic physicians can be especially helpful for patients with postural imbalances, arthritis, muscle and joint strains, conditions like whiplash and sciatica, and other health challenges.

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 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 role of the musculoskeletal system 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.

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6 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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