What is Osteopathic Medicine? (Definition and Role of a DO)

What Is Osteopathic Medicine?

If you're not a professional in the medical field or you've only dealt with medical doctors (MDs), you may not know what a doctor of osteopathy (DO) is. A DO is a medical doctor who receives training comparable to an MD. In fact, a DO has an equivalent degree to an MD and can perform comparable work. However, osteopathy is in many ways a distinct discipline, and DOs often have special knowledge and skills that MDs don't.

The History of Osteopathic Medicine

Osteopathy originated in the late 19th century as an attempt to reform the study and practice of medicine. Andrew Taylor Still, one of the foremost figures in the discipline's early history, argued that conventional medicine was too focused on alleviating symptoms of medical conditions, rather than curing the underlying condition.

His concerns weren't without cause. At the time, many of the most common "cures" in use were actually powerful drugs such as whiskey and heroin, which did more harm than good. And surgical procedures were often performed in unsanitary conditions, which left patients at a dangerous risk of infection.

During its early years, osteopaths focused on what we'd now identify as holistic treatments. These focused first and foremost on manipulating the musculoskeletal system (the osteo- in "osteopathy" means "bone"). Occasionally DOs also performed surgery or prescribed drugs. Medical doctors reacted strongly against osteopaths, and the American Medical Association took steps to bar DOs from membership.

In the 1960s, the bitter MD vs. DO conflict began to subside. Conventional medicine had become more rigorous and focused on the patient's well-being, and osteopathy began to focus less on musculoskeletal manipulation and more on conventional medical techniques. The U.S. military began to admit osteopaths as doctors in 1966, and in 1969, the AMA began allowing osteopaths into their organization.

What Is an Osteopathic Doctor?

These days, the definition of an osteopathic doctor is a physician who receives osteopathic training. Like medical doctors, DOs receive four years of medical school,
 although they attend special osteopathic classes. The first two years focus on classroom work, while the last two consist of clinical rotations.

From there, they receive specialty and subspecialty training and become certified by their local medical board. Once they've graduated, they complete a period of residency, just like MDs do. In terms of education and practice, MDs and DOs are very comparable — but there are some crucial differences.

The Difference Between an MD and a DO

Perhaps the biggest difference between an MD and a DO is osteopathic manipulative treatment or therapy(OMT), sometimes called osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM). OMT encourages DOs to consider the soft tissues of the patient body (the muscles and fascia) as a single unit that reflects and affects the health of all parts of the patient. To address and remedy what osteopathic medicine calls "somatic dysfunctions," DOs manipulate the soft tissue. Common techniques include stretching and contracting muscles, using myofascial release techniques and manually pumping lymph through the body.

OMT was once one of the defining features of osteopathic medicine and was a first-line treatment. However, in recent years, the number of DOs performing OMT has declined, as osteopathic medicine becomes more like conventional medicine in general.

The American Osteopathic Association has taken steps to promote OMT as a first-line treatment and has encouraged research on the topic to demonstrate that OMT is a reputable, evidence-based technique. The organization has also encouraged osteopathic programs to emphasize osteopathic manipulation in their curricula and to teach the most modern OMT methods. However, many doctors of osteopathy have practices that are indistinguishable from those of MDs and don't incorporate OMT into their practice at all.

Another important difference between DOs and MDs is the focus by DOs on primary care. While this is less pronounced than it used to be, in general, DOs are far more likely than MDs to go into a primary care field. If you're looking for a family doctor or other primary care professional, you may find that a DO is your best option.

DOs also often focus more on preventative care than MDs. If you're looking for solid medical advice and care that will help you avoid serious health problems down the road, a DO may be the answer.

Choosing an Osteopathic Physician

Choosing an osteopathic physician is very much like choosing any other doctor. You should put out inquiries to medical professionals you trust as well as people you know and carefully read reviews and other information about the doctor before making your decision.

Because doctors of osteopathic medicine receive the same general training and receive the same sorts of certification that medical doctors receive, you don't need to worry about if a doctor of osteopathy is a skilled, knowledgeable professional. The care you receive will be of exactly the same caliber as what you'd receive from an MD.

If you're choosing a doctor of osteopathy because you're interested in receiving osteopathic manipulation, remember that not all DOs use that technique in their practice or they may not use it often. Don't be afraid to ask your DO if he performs osteopathic manipulation, and be sure to communicate any desires you have for your treatment.

Many people don't know much about osteopathic medicine or why they might choose an osteopathic physician over a medical doctor. But osteopathic physicians are well-trained, highly skilled professionals who tend to place a strong emphasis on preventative medicine. They may also use techniques such as osteopathic manipulation. Choosing a doctor of osteopathy, especially as a primary care doctor, is a safe decision that can be excellent for your health.

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