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The Healing Power of Touch

For Treating Your Illness or Injury: Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment

What it is: An osteopathic physician (also known as a doctor of osteopathic medicine, or D.O.) relies on her hands to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness and injury. The D.O. moves muscles and joints with stretching, gentle pressure, and resistance (where the doctor applies pressure to a joint or tissue, then asks the patient to press that part of the body against his hand). Unlike other forms of bodywork, such as chiropractic therapy, which focuses on the relationship between the musculoskeletal and nervous systems, osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) treats the whole body by stimulating nerve centers to improve health and blood circulation.

Why try it? OMT can be used for routine health care (such as the type you’d receive from a primary care physician), but is also practiced in specialties ranging from obstetrics and gynecology to cardiology. If you see a D.O. for a possible sinus infection, for example, he’ll not only examine your eyes, ears, nose, and throat and possibly prescribe an antibiotic for infection, but he’ll also ask you to lie down while he presses spots on your upper back, neck, and head. He’ll look for areas of tenderness, muscle knots, and motion restriction, and treat any issues he finds using his hands. This technique can help give a boost to your lymphatic system (tissues and organs that produce, store, and carry cells to fight infection). How so: Gentle pressure to certain points improves circulation in the mucous membranes involved, which causes draining and decongestion, just like taking a decongestant pill, says Kurt Heinking, D.O., chairman of the department of osteopathic manipulative medicine at the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine. By encouraging the sinuses to drain, OMT helps the antibiotic beat back infection.

Kate Gilhooly, 30, of Chicago, sought Heinking’s help for a herniated disc after an accident, when other treatments didn’t relieve her pain. Heinking examined her joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. He also evaluated her as she walked, stood on tiptoe, and rocked back on her heels, looking for muscle weaknesses from the pinched nerve. Her first OMT session brought relief that same night. “I felt a release of pain the next day, and in the weeks after, it kept getting better,” Gilhooly says. “It was a major turning point in my injury.” Heinking coordinated the care with Gilhooly’s physical therapist to make sure she was doing the correct exercises for her condition.

To find a D.O., visit the American Osteopathic Association’s database at osteopathic.org/directory.cfm. D.O.’s receive training similar to medical doctors, with a special focus on nerves, muscles, and bones; they can prescribe drugs and perform surgery. A D.O. visit is typically covered by insurance; if not, it will cost you anywhere from $50 to $250.

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