What Does a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine Do?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on August 12, 2016
3 min read

Doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) can take care of you from head to toe.

“We are fully licensed and certified physicians who have a few extra tools in our toolkit,” says William Burke, DO, dean of the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in Dublin.

More than half of DOs focus on primary care as internists, family doctors, and pediatricians. Others go on to specialize in fields such as psychiatry, neurology, and cardiovascular surgery.

“MDs and DOs work side by side in virtually every hospital in the country,” Burke says.

A DO will check for the cause of your health problems, says Shannon Scott, DO, clinical associate professor at Midwestern University Clinics Arizona.

“We focus on prevention by looking at how your lifestyle and environment are affecting your health,” Scott says. “In a typical visit, I sit down and listen to what’s going on with your home, family, and work,” she says. “I’m interested in your mental, physical, and spiritual health.”

It’s a 360-degree view of your life and your health with several goals: ease symptoms, prevent future ones, ease stress, and help your body heal itself. Some DOs may be interested in and knowledgeable about complementary and alternative treatments. But the field of osteopathic medicine itself is mainstream.

One of the cornerstones of osteopathic medicine is all the body's parts working together. DOs use osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) to help identify and correct the source of the underlying health concerns.They use this technique to help treat low back pain, as well as a variety of other health problems, including headaches and sinus issues.

“You know the old song, ‘The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone’? Well, it’s true,” Burke says. “The body is a unit, and if one thing is not functioning normally, it can affect everything else.”

If you have chest pain, for example, they will do a physical exam and run tests to rule out anything like pneumonia or heart disease. Then they will spend time looking at how the muscles and bones work together. “It might be that a rib is slightly displaced, and we can correct that,” Burke says. If it’s something more serious, like heart disease, you’ll get the standard medical treatment that an MD would provide.

If you have lower back pain or leg pain, your DO will look at the length of your legs -- one may be slightly longer than the other -- and how you walk.

Though all DOs are trained in OMT, not all of them use it. This treatment works most often to relieve pain, help you move better, and promote healing. Some DOs also use it to help treat asthma, sinus disorders, menstrual pain, and migraines.

Some medical issues require prescription medicines or surgery. Of course, DOs will recommend those when needed. But they will often try to limit the amount needed or eliminate it altogether.

“Our patients expect to hear what options they have,” Scott says. “They may say to us, ‘If I can make a change in my lifestyle first and avoid having surgery, let’s look at that first.’”