Osteopathic Medicine: Why An Osteopath Might Be Right For You


Looking for a new doctor but one with a decidedly natural twist? Then an osteopathic physician might be the perfect fit! One of the fastest growing types of medicine in the U.S., osteopathy is a non-invasive, drug-free medical practice that relies on physical manipulation. Instead of simply focusing on your symptoms, a doctor of osteopathy considers the whole person and uses their hands to diagnose what ails you. Osteopathic medicine taps into the body’s natural ability to heal itself. While osteopathy can also marry this alternative approach with more conventional methods, visiting a doctor of osteopathy can give you a whole new appreciation for hands-on healthcare!

Read on to understand the health benefits of osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT).

What is Osteopathic medicine?

According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, “Osteopathic medicine is a distinctive form of medical care founded on the philosophy that all body systems are interrelated and dependent upon one another for good health.” (1) This philosophy was developed in 1874 by Andrew Taylor Still, MD, a frontier doctor who pioneered the concept of wellness and recognized the importance of treating illness within the context of the whole body. (2)

Did you know?
Today, this patient-centered form of complementary medicine is practiced by nearly 150,000 doctors of osteopathy (DO) in America, making it one of the fastest growing professions in healthcare. (3)(4)

In some respects, a DO is much like an MD. Both receive extensive medical training, complete a residency, and are licensed to practice medicine in all 50 states. (5) They are also able to prescribe drugs and perform surgery. But unlike an MD, a DO’s philosophy not only takes symptoms into account, but also looks at the whole body, mind, and spirit of each patient and includes techniques not found in allopathic medicine. As part of their medical education, a DO receives training in the musculoskeletal system and how the body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles, joints, and bones work together to support good health. Osteopathic physicians also focus on prevention and take into account how a patient’s lifestyle and environment can affect their health and wellbeing.

doctor stretching a woman's arm

A Doctor of Osteopathy takes a “whole body” approach to your health instead of simply focusing on your symptoms.

Benefits of seeing an Osteopath

Because a DO uses hands-on manual manipulation, it’s no surprise that they can effectively treat conditions that affect the joints, muscles, and bones.

Did you know?
Arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, sports injuries, and low back pain are among the common complaints often treated by a DO.

But the benefits of osteopathic medicine encompass a wide range of other conditions you might not expect such as asthma and respiratory disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraines. It may even shorten your post-op time in the hospital! (6) Because of the broad scope of medicine that a DO is schooled in, many choose to practice general medicine, internal medicine or pediatrics.

Even though osteopathy has a long history of use, especially in the U.S., clinical research into its efficacy is much more recent. Here are just some of the findings that have been published over the past 20 years.

Low back pain: the most common reason for seeing a DO

Low back pain is perhaps the most common reason someone would see a DO. A growing number of studies show that it’s a smart move! One review of 15 randomized clinical trials found that osteopathic manipulation treatment (OMT) was an effective way to reduce the pain and improve mobility in both patients with nonspecific low back pain and the back pain often experienced during pregnancy. (7) During an earlier study of 455 patients with chronic low back pain, researchers at the University of North Texas Health Science Center found that OMT offered significant relief compared to sham manipulation techniques. The participants who received the OMT reported a substantial improvement in their pain after 12 weeks and used fewer prescription pain relievers than those receiving the sham treatment. The researchers concluded that OMT was both effective and safe for treating chronic low back pain. (8)

How osteopathic manipulation treatment helps with headache

Headache sufferers, particularly those with migraines, can also find relief through OMT. A randomized controlled trial of 42 women that appeared in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that those who received five 50-minute OMT sessions throughout the 10-week trial experienced significant improvements in pain intensity and their quality of life. What’s more, they lost considerably less time from work than the women in the control group who received no treatment. (9) A more recent trial published in the journal Complementary Therapies Medicine found similar results. During this six-month study, 105 patients with chronic migraines were divided up into three groups: OMT plus migraine medication, sham OMT, and medication only. By the end of the study, only those in the OMT group experienced significant improvements. They took fewer migraine drugs and had fewer days with a migraine. The intensity of their pain was also much lower than at the start of the study and they had considerably less disability. (10)

Using OMT for Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome affects up to 20 percent of people, making it the most common functional gastrointestinal disorder in the U.S. An analysis of five clinical trials involving 204 patients with IBS found that those undergoing OMT reported fewer and less severe symptoms compared to those who received either sham OMT or standard care. (11) In another study, French researchers found that OMT was effective for people with Crohn’s disease who also experience IBS symptoms. After just three sessions, those receiving OMT saw the severity of their symptoms decrease significantly. (12) Since there are few effective allopathic treatments for IBS symptoms, this is indeed good news.

Osteopathic medicine can even help with respiratory problems

Asthma and respiratory problems may not immediately seem like a logical target for osteopathy but studies show that OMT can be an effective treatment. Clinical trials show that OMT can improve the ability to breathe in both children and adults with asthma. (13) OMT may be able to help those with COPD, too. When 18 patients with COPD underwent a series of seven osteopathic treatments, researchers from Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine at A.T. Still University found that they had improved lung capacity and better exercise tolerance compared to those who were treated with sham OMT. What’s more, 82 percent of the OMT participants reported the ability to breathe easier compared to just 65 percent in the sham OMT group. (14)

This may just scratch the surface of what osteopathy can do. Preliminary studies suggest that OMT might also benefit those with Parkinson’s disease, pneumonia, sleep problems, and even snoring! (15)(16)

doctor working on woman's back pain

An osteopathic physician uses hands-on manual manipulation to diagnose and treat a wide range of health problems.

Questions to ask your osteopathic physician

As with any medical care, it’s important to feel comfortable with and confident in your doctor. Here are some questions to ask during your initial visit:

  • Are you board certified?
  • I’ve heard of osteopathic manipulative treatment. Is that something you do within your practice and would you recommend it for my condition?
  • Do you perform this procedure often? How often?
  • What is the success rate for this treatment or procedure?
  • How many times a week must I come to get results?
  • How long does each session last?
  • What are the risks and complications associated with treatment?
  • How will we know if my treatment is working? And how soon?
  • Are you open to a second opinion?
  • Are you comfortable with me bringing a friend or relative to my appointments?
  • Will my insurance cover my treatment?

What to expect during your visit

Once you’ve found a DO you are comfortable with, here’s what you can expect during your visit. A typical visit is broken up into four parts:

The interview

Your DO will go over your medical history and ask about your home, your work, and your relationships.

The exam

You will undergo a complete physical examination. Your DO will check your posture, spine, joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. If needed, your DO will order additional tests.

The diagnosis

Based on the interview, examination, and any test results, your DO will then determine the underlying cause of your symptoms.

The treatment

Your DO will suggest a treatment plan for your specific problem. This may include OMT to encourage the body’s natural ability to heal itself through gentle stretching, pressure, and resistance. Treatment may also include prescription drugs or even surgery.

doctor talking to patient in office

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How to find an Osteopath near you

Osteopaths practice in all 50 states and, to varying degrees, in 65 countries around the world. You can find one near you through the Academy of Osteopathy website (17). Now that you are aware of its many benefits, if osteopathic medicine sounds like the best of both conventional and complementary medicine, it may be a good fit for your health needs.

If you are a practitioner, consider signing up to Fullscript. If you are a patient, talk to your healthcare practitioner about Fullscript!

  1. A Brief History of Osteopathic Medicine. The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. Available at https://www.aacom.org/become-a-doctor/about-om/history
  2. Still AT.The Philosophy and Mechanical Principles of Osteopathy. Kansas City, Mo: Hudson-Kimberly Pub Co; 1902:9–20,185,210,270.
  3. 2015 Osteopathic Medical Profession Report. American Osteopathic Association. https://web.archive.org/web/20160201133749/http://www.osteopathic.org/inside-aoa/about/aoa-annual-statistics/Documents/2015-OMP-report.pdf
  4. Everything you need to know about osteopathy. Medical News Today. July 5, 2017. Available at https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/70381.php
  5. What Kind of Doctor is a D.O.? Consumer Health. Mayo Clinic. Available at https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/osteopathic-medicine/faq-20058168
  6. Slattengren AH, Nissly T, Blustin J, et al. Best uses of osteopathic manipulation. The Journal of Family Practice. 2017;66(12):743-7.
  7. Franke H, Franke JD, Fryer G. Osteopathic manipulative treatment for nonspecific low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2014;15:286.
  8. Licciardone JC, Minotti DE, Gatchel RJ, et al. Osteopathic manual treatment and ultrasound therapy for chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Annals of Family Medicine. 2013; 11(2):122-9.
  9. Voigt K, Liebnitzky J, Brumeister U, et al. Efficacy of osteopathic manipulative treatment of female patients with migraine: results of a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2011;17(3):225-30.
  10. Cerritelli F, Ginevri L, Messi G, et al. Clinical effectiveness of osteopathic treatment in chronic migraine: 3-armed randomized controlled trial. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2015;23(2):149-56.
  11. Müller A, Franke H, Resch KL, et al. Effectiveness of osteopathic manipulative therapy for managing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome: a systematic review. Journal of the American Osteopath Association. 2014;114(6):470-9.
  12. Piche T, Pishvaie D, Tirouvaziam D, et al. Osteopathy decreases the severity of IBS-like symptoms associated with Crohn’s disease in patients in remissions. European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2014;26(12):1392-8.
  13. Bockenhauer SE, Juliard KN, Lo KS, et al. Quantifiable effects of osteopathic manipulative techniques on patients with chronic asthma. Journal of the American Osteopath Association. 2002;102(7):371-5.
  14. Guiney PA, Chou R, Vianna A, et al. Effects of osteopathic manipulative treatment on pediatric patients with asthma: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Osteopath Association. 2005;105(1):7-12.
  15. Noll DR, Degenhardt BF, Johnson JC, et al. Immediate effects of osteopathic manipulative treatment in elderly patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Journal of the American Osteopath Association. 2008;108(5):251-9.
  16. Jacq O, Amulf I, Similowski T, et al. Upper respiratory stabilization by osteopathic manipulation of the sphenopalatine ganglion versus sham manipulation in OSAS patients: a proof-of-concept, randomized, crossover, double-blind, controlled study. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2017;17(1):546.
  17. DiFrancisco-Donoghue J, Apoznanski T, de Vries K, et al. Osteopathic manipulation as a complementary approach to Parkinson’s disease: A controlled pilot study. NeuroRehabilitation. 2017;40(1):145-51.

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