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What is Osteopathy?

Dr. David Johnston

Prior to the early part of the 20th century, the term doctor could mean someone who was educated in one or more different types of medicine. These included medical systems such as homeopathy, chiropractic, electrotherapy, eclectic medicine, naturopathy and osteopathy, as well as allopathy, which is what we call conventional medical practice today. As medical education became more standardized, allopathy and osteopathic medicine become the two primary forms of training for doctors. An osteopathic doctor is similar in some ways to an allopathic doctor, but there are some distinct differences.

History of Osteopathic Medicine

Osteopathy was founded in the late 1800s by Andrew Taylor Still, MD, DO, who opened the first osteopathic medical school in 1892. Dr. Still felt that all parts of the body should work in harmony for optimum health. He felt that disease could result from deviations in anatomy, which could be corrected through hands-on manipulation. Dr. Still developed a new medical system in which relationships between body, emotions, mind and spirit were acknowledged as affecting health. Cranial osteopathy is a subtle and refined approach that includes the head as well as the rest of the body.

The Picture Today

Today, most physicians in the US are doctors of medicine (MD) or doctors of osetopathy (DO). Naturopathic physicians are another and much smaller group, but are not recognized as physicians or allowed to practice in all states, so insurance and Medicare will not pay for their services in most cases. Some doctors practice homeopathy, but there are no medical schools devoted to this system of medicine as of this writing. About one of every five medical students in the US is in an osteopathic program and about 11 percent of practicing physicians graduated from a US osteopathic program. DOs are licensed as physicians in all 50 states.

Conventional vs. Osteopathic Medicine

Although many of the courses that MDs and DOs take in medical school – like anatomy, physiology and pharmacology – are the same, the approach is different. Traditional medical students are taught to identify the symptoms and disease, and prescribe to treat those specific issues.

  • An osteopathic doctor is taught to focus on the whole person, with a heavy emphasis on primary rather than specialty care.
  • DOs often describe what they do as holistic care – being concerned with every facet of a patient’s well-being, not just the symptoms that brought the patient in for a visit.
  • The DO curriculum emphasizes holistic patient management and teaches specific strategies to ensure the focus remains broad rather than narrowing in on a single symptom or disease.
  • A second major difference for DOs is the focus on the musculoskeletal system. DOs spend 200 additional hours learning spinal manipulation (similar to what a chiropractor does). They are taught that structure affects function – if the spine is out of alignment it can cause symptoms elsewhere in the body.
  • Another major tenet of the DO philosophy is that the body has an innate ability to heal; medical care should be directed toward supporting and promoting that healing function.
  • DOs use prescription medications, surgery and diagnostic technology; many also use alternative treatments such as herbs or recommend complementary or alternative therapies such as massage, acupuncture or homeopathy.

Osteopaths strive to help their patients achieve a high level of wellness; they emphasize health promotion and disease prevention. Osteopaths see themselves as partners with their patients and want to work closely with each individual.