Angie's LIST Guide to
Osteopathic Medicine

Osteopathic physicians take a holistic approach to patient care from prescribing medicine to using hands-on manipulative techniques for diagnosis and treatment.
 

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Osteopathic doctors will often start out a new patient exam by taking the routine vitals but will often offer a more holistic approach to treatment and care. (Photo by Karen Geswein)
Osteopathic doctors will often start out a new patient exam by taking the routine vitals but will often offer a more holistic approach to treatment and care. (Photo by Karen Geswein)
 
 

Osteopathy's holistic approach

Since Dr. Andrew Taylor Still opened the American School of Osteopathy in 1892, osteopathic medicine has focused on preventive care and the body's natural ability to heal itself. A doctor of osteopathic medicine, or DO, emphasizes the relationship between the musculoskeletal system and the blood vessels and nerves of the body. This holistic approach is fundamental to the practice, as osteopaths treat the whole person rather than just dealing with individual symptoms, body systems and organs.

Like a medical doctor, doctors of osteopathy attend medical school for four years and are licensed to prescribe medication, use technology to diagnose disease, evaluate injury and perform surgery. To pursue this specialty though, a doctor needs to undergo 300 to 500 additional hours of training in hands-on manipulation of the musculoskeletal system.

Though still making up only a small proportion of the total practicing physician population, today more than 1 in 5 students in medical school are training to be osteopathic doctors, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. DOs work in areas such as obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics and internal medicine.

What an osteopathic doctor does

The core of osteopathic medicine involves a technique called osteopathic manipulative treatment, or OMT, a hands-on diagnosis and treatment for illness and injury. Osteopaths use their hands as the primary tool to look for somatic dysfunction. Somatic refers to the body's framework, its skeleton, joints, muscles, connective tissue and related blood vessels, nerves and glands.

The osteopathic doctor examines the body for altered function that causes pain or impaired physiologic function. For example, restriction during motion could signal injury or impaired function in joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles.

This treatment often shortens needed treatment time. OMT includes range-of-motion manipulations, muscle resistance techniques and massage. The physician may also adjust the bones in the skull or jaw, as in craniosacral therapy. The doctor may also discuss therapeutic exercise and nutrition.

Related: Guide to Dietitians/Nutritionists

 

What osteopathic medicine treats

Osteopathic medicine treats the underlying cause of pain through noninvasive techniques. Osteopaths use gentle manipulation to improve blood flow and restore the function of nerves, relax muscles and improve arthritic joints.

This treatment is used in treating sprains, strains and sports injuries, such as tennis elbow, common back and neck pain, and to relieve tension or migraine headaches. Because OMT helps increase circulation and lower blood pressure, it can reduce scar tissue and other adhesions. Osteopaths also treat pain resulting from accidents and injuries and related to pregnancy, arthritis, fibromyalgia and lupus.

After the osteopathic doctor assesses a patient's injury or pain, he or she considers how it affects the whole body. For example, a sore knee could be caused by another injury or result from compensating for an underlying problem. Using techniques gentle enough for newborns and the elderly, osteopaths can treat patients of all ages.

Finding a doctor of osteopathic medicine

If you know that you'll need the services of a DO, contact your health insurance company to make sure that this medical specialty is covered. Most health plans provide coverage for osteopathic medicine, but you'll want to check on the specifics for your plan before making an appointment.

Carefully research the osteopathic doctors you are considering. Verify their qualifications, education, continuing education, accepted insurance plans and affiliated hospitals and check out reviews for osteopaths on Angie's List

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