Osteopathic Medicine

Focus on the Body's Ability to Heal Itself


Osteopathy, or osteopathic medicine, is a system of health care based on viewing the patient as a whole individual, rather than as a collection of various parts. One of the distinguishing features of osteopathic medicine is the use of osteopathic manipulation (also known as osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM) or osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT)).

Osteopathic physicians, or D.O.s, are fully licensed medical doctors, like M.D.s, able to prescribe medicine, deliver babies, and perform surgery. They can specialize in all medical specialties, including family practice, cardiology, surgery, pediatrics, and so on.

Osteopathic theory focuses on the body's ability to heal itself. A.T. Still, M.D., the founder of osteopathy, claimed that the role of the physician was to "find health." He viewed the body as a self-regulating, self-healing organism that only needed to be given an optimum environment in which to thrive. The goal of the osteopathic physician is to promote such an optimum environment.

Osteopathic manipulation is a medical procedure whereby the physician uses various types of manual or manipulative techniques to enhance the body's self-healing capabilities. Unlike chiropractic, which emphasizes spinal "subluxations" as the major cause of problems in the body, OMM encompasses the role of the bones, joints, muscles and ligaments, blood vessels, posture and biomechanics, and nerves in promoting health and treating disease.

The cornerstone of OMM is creating an ideal structure-function relationship in the body. If the body's structure is optimized, then optimum function should follow.

Before performing any osteopathic manipulative technique, the osteopathic physician takes an appropriate history and performs a physical exam to determine where problems may exist that could be interfering with the body's self-healing ability. Unlike physical therapy or chiropractic, where the same treatment is given on subsequent visits based on an initial diagnosis, the osteopathic physician must perform a new exam each time he or she see the patient. He must evaluate how the patient's body responded to the previous treatment and determine what, if any, further treatment is indicated.

History of Osteopathy

The osteopathic profession was started in the late 1800's by an M.D., Andrew Taylor Still. Dr. Still was frustrated with the limitations of what modern medicine had to offer at that time. He watched helplessly as four of his children died from spinal meningitis. He embarked on a long and detailed personal study of anatomy and physiology. He eventually discovered that the human body is a wonderfully complex structure that possesses an inner ability to heal itself if only given the right environment to do so.

Dr. Still developed a treatment approach that included not only what was useful from modern medicine but also added manipulative treatment to help create an ideal structural environment in order for the body's healing functions to thrive. Known as the "lightning bone setter" for his manipulation techniques, Dr. Still pioneered the use of medical manipulation in the United States.

(Historically, the chiropractic profession was started by D.D. Palmer, who was a student at the first osteopathic medical school in Kansas. He left his osteopathic training before completing it and went to Davenport, Iowa, where he started the chiropractic profession. While chiropractors receive extensive training in chiropractic manipulation, they do not learn medicine.)

Today, osteopathic medicine includes not only OMM but also nutrition, exercise, and - when appropriate - medicine and surgery for a truly comprehensive medical treatment approach.

Osteopathic Education and Training

Following college, all osteopathic physicians complete four years of medical school, followed by internship and residency training. There are currently 19 osteopathic medical schools in the United States. Osteopathic physicians make up about 10% of all U.S. physicians but 20% of all primary care physicians, highlighting the emphasis osteopathy places on preventive and primary care medicine.

D.O.s and M.D.s often train and practice in the same hospitals and have comparable licensing and credentials. They are the only two types of fully licensed medical doctors in United States.