What Is It?
Osteopathy is a holistic approach to the practice of medicine. It emphasizes that all systems of the body are interrelated and that any adverse changes in one part of the body may impair the functioning of other systems or organs.
For this reason, doctors of osteopathy (D.O.’s) treat the body as a whole, often focusing special attention on the musculoskeletal system (bones and muscles) in an effort to find the underlying cause of an ailment. Osteopathy also stresses preventive medicine, encouraging patients to maintain a healthy lifestyle and eat a healthy diet.
Osteopathy was first developed in 1874 by Missouri physician and surgeon Andrew Taylor Still, who became disenchanted with conventional medicine after losing three of his children to spinal meningitis. Still became convinced that health and illness were largely dependent upon the soundness and mechanical functioning of the body’s bones, muscles, and joints. Based on this idea, he created a new medical science, which he ultimately named osteopathy, from the Greek words osteo, meaning bone, and pathos, which means suffering or disease. In 1892, Still founded the American School of Osteopathy, now the Kirksville (Missouri) College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Today, doctors of osteopathy go through the same rigorous training as medical doctors. They attend four years of osteopathic medical school, participate in residency programs, and many go on to specialize in fields such as pediatrics, surgery, internal medicine, or family practice. Just as a medical doctor does, an osteopath can write prescriptions and order lab tests. And, like M.D.s, osteopaths are subject to board certification in their chosen specialty and are eligible for membership in the American Medical Association.
Within the practice of osteopathy there are subspecialties, in which physicians focus on one area of the body in particular. Cranial osteopathy, for example, applies osteopathic treatment specifically to the bones of the skull. Performed by highly trained, licensed physicians (M.D.s and D.O.s) and even some dentists (D.D.S.), an osteopath’s approach is not the same as craniosacral therapy, which may be performed by unlicensed therapists.
How Does It Work?
A visit to an osteopath is very similar to a visit to an M.D. Indeed, for many disorders, the way an osteopathic physician treats a condition may be exactly the way a medical doctor would treat it. There are some differences, however.
For example, if your health problem involves bones, muscles, or tendons, an osteopath may use osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT) to encourage healing. OMT includes soft-tissue manipulation, rhythmic movements and stretches, articulation techniques that work the joints, and painless high-velocity thrusts. Osteopaths believe that these techniques improve nerve transmissions and enhance immunity by loosening congestion of lymph nodes and increasing the movement of the body’s natural antibodies.
OMT can also relax muscles, enhance flexibility, stimulate nerves, improve posture, and increase range of motion and mobility. Combined with improvements to a patient’s lifestyle and eating habits, OMT is intended to promote overall well-being.
Osteopathy should not be confused with chiropractic. Although both disciplines are based on the belief that health is rooted in the body’s structure, chiropractors are trained to focus on realigning the bones and joints, while osteopaths have all the tools of a medical practice at their disposal when treating a patient.
What You Can Expect
An initial visit to an osteopath typically begins with an extensive discussion of your symptoms, medical history, emotional health, and lifestyle. The doctor’s assessment will likely also include a complete physical exam that might involve blood work, urine analysis, or X rays, as necessary.
A hands-on evaluation of your spine, muscles, joints, and tendons will also typically be performed. The physician will look for any dysfunction or abnormality and note your reflexes, flexibility, and muscle strength. He may ask you to walk, stand, sit, or lie down so he can note your form, movements, and muscle tone.
The osteopath may recommend certain changes to your diet or your lifestyle, prescribe medication, or refer you to a specialist for different treatment. If a structural abnormality has been found, osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT) may be performed by the doctor to treat the problem.
A first visit may take up to an hour, and subsequent visits are usually 20 to 30 minutes. The number of visits you require will depend on your condition.
Osteopathy’s whole-body approach can be used to treat many conditions, but has been shown to be especially well-suited to the treatment of back and neck pain, headache, knee problems, and joint injuries.
Moreover, osteopathy’s hands-on manipulative techniques can relax muscles, relieve pain, reduce stress, stimulate nerves, and promote blood circulation. The manipulations may also help improve posture and increase mobility and range of motion. Not surprisingly, sports medicine is a natural outgrowth of osteopathic practice.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Choose a D.O. just as you would choose an M.D. Make sure the doctor you select is licensed and board certified in his chosen field. Most insurance companies will cover a visit to a D.O. just as they cover a visit to an M.D.
Strenuous joint manipulation should not be painful, but can result in minor aches that last a day or two.
Avoid osteopathic manipulation if you have osteoporosis, broken bones, severe joint inflammation, or bone cancer.
If you’ve had a spinal fusion or if you suffer from a prolapsed disk, avoid osteopathic manipulation altogether.