Angie's LIST Guide to
Osteopathic medicine

A doctor of osteopathic medicine takes a holistic approach by treating the entire body through manipulation of the musculoskeletal structure to encourage the body’s natural healing process.


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 focued on preventive care and the body's natural ability to heal itself. It's both a philosophy and a practice of medicine.

A doctor of osteopathic medicine (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, osteopathic doctors 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 practical hands-on manipulation of the musculoskeletal system.

Approximately 5 percent of the physician population are DOs working 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 (OMT) that involves hands-on diagnosis and treatment for illness and injury. It's not chiropractic care, though. Physicians use their hands as the primary tool to look for somatic dysfunction (S/D). Somatic refers to the body's framework, its skeleton, joints, muscles, connective tissue and related blood vessles, nerves and glands.

A doctor can't detect S/D with imaging methods such as X-rays, MRIs or CT scans. Rather, the osteopathic doctor examines the body for altered function that causes pain or impaired physiologic function. Using OMT could include restriction during motion that signals injury or impaired function in joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles.

This highly relaxing treatment often shortens needed treatment time and can sometimes leave a patient feeling mildly tired or sore afterwards, which means the treatment process is working. The doctor may also discuss therapeutic exercise and nutrition.

Treatments include 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.

What osteopathic medicine treats

Osteopathic medicine treats the underlying cause of pain through noninvasive techniques and encourages a balanced, healthy state. Gentle manipulation improves blood flow, and with it the body can start to heal and restore the function of nerves, relax muscles and improve arthritic joints.

This treatment is especially effective in treating sprains, strains and sports injuries, such as tennis elbow and common back and neck pain. An osteopathic doctor can also relieve tension or migraine headaches. Because OMT helps increase circulation and lower blood pressure, the technique can reduce scar tissue and other adhesions. 

After the osteopathic doctor assesses the 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 could result from compensating for an underlying problem.

An osteopath can successfully pain resulting from accidents and injuries and related to pregnancy, arthritis, fibromyalgia and lupus. Back and neck pain, muscle spasms and lingering pain also respond well to osteopathic treatments.

The holistic approach is useful for people of all ages. Gentle enough for newborns and the elderly, treatments can help an entire family restore health and stay healthy. Colic and reflux problems can benefit from manipulation as well as hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children.

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. Depending on your policy, you may need a referral from your primary care physician in order for your policy to pay for treatment. 

Read through the listing of osteopathic doctors in the provider directory available from your health insurance company. Carefully research the osteopathic doctors you are considering. Verify their qualifications, education, continuing education, accepted insurance plans and affiliated hospitals by consulting Angie's List, where you can also see member reviews and rankings. 


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