What Is an Osteopath?

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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. 

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. 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 Specialities

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 are currently more than 104,000 osteopathic physicians practicing in the U.S. 

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.

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