Osteopathic Medicine

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on September 20, 2023
4 min read

Osteopathic medicine is based on the idea that all the body’s systems are interrelated. Osteopaths focus on treating the whole person. There are more than 149,000 osteopathic doctors in the U.S. And more than 1 in 4 U.S. medical students are on the path to becoming a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO).

Osteopathic medicine dates back more than 100 years. Its founder, Andrew Taylor Still, thought that correcting problems with the body's structure could help the body heal itself. He developed osteopathic manipulation treatments with a goal of restoring the nerves to a healthy state and promoting circulation so the body could heal itself.

One key idea in this field is that many diseases result from, or cause, problems within the body's musculoskeletal system, which includes nerves, muscles, and bones. DOs pay extra attention to how all your body parts work together in order to prevent or treat health issues. And they get special training in that.

Osteopathic medicine is about your whole body, not just specific parts or symptoms. So if you come in with, say, knee pain, they’re likely going to look at more than your knee.

Osteopathic doctors believe touch can be healing. All DOs are trained in osteopathic manipulative treatment, sometimes called manual manipulation or OMT. That's a hands-on method to help diagnose and treat illnesses. Not all DOs use it regularly in their practice, though.

Most students who apply to osteopathic medical school first earn a bachelor’s degree and many also have a master’s degree or doctorate.

Osteopathic doctors get extra training in the musculoskeletal system. But they also learn all the other parts of modern medicine. They can prescribe medication, do surgery, run tests, and do everything else you would expect from a doctor.

After 4 years of medical school, osteopathic doctors do a residency in their chosen area of specialty. Just like an MD, they may become a primary care doctor, a pediatrician, or a specialist like a dermatologist or cardiologist.

While osteopathy and naturopathy may sound similar, they’re different. Naturopathic medicine is a system that uses natural remedies to heal your body.

Like DOs, naturopathic practitioners are trained, but the type of training varies. Naturopathic doctors complete a 4-year graduate-level program at a naturopathic medical school. Naturopaths aren’t licensed and take training programs that aren’t certified by the U.S. Department of Education.  

DOs focus on hands-on diagnosis and treatment along with prescription medicine, surgery, and technology. A naturopathic practitioner’s goal is to heal you through natural substances like food, herbs, and water, plus lifestyle changes such as exercise and lowering your stress.

An exam with a DO is similar to an exam with any other kind of doctor. You’ll get your blood pressure checked, and you’ll step on a scale. They’ll want to hear about your lifestyle -- such as what you eat, what you do for exercise, and how stressed you feel -- as well as any symptoms that bother you.

Prevention is a big part of the osteopathic approach to medicine, so your DO will probably give you advice to help you avoid injuries or diseases down the road. An osteopath can give you any vaccines you need and recommend routine medical tests like a mammogram or a cholesterol blood test, a quit-smoking program, or screening tests for depression or another mental health problem. 

Medicare and private insurance should treat your appointment the same as a visit to any other doctor.

A main way DOs are different from MDs is that they may use osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) to diagnose and treat illnesses. They believe tightness and restriction in your nerves and muscles can be caused by or lead to other problems. They use their hands to gently move your joints and tissues to correct any restrictions in your range of motion.

The practice includes 40 techniques, including:

  • Soft tissue. You’ll feel stretching and pressure on your muscles.
  • Muscle energy. In this technique, you move your muscles in a specific direction while the DO counters that movement. Think push-pull.
  • Myofascial release. Your DO uses firm but gentle pressure to release tension in the fascia, which is the layer of connective tissue that surrounds your bones, muscles, and organs.
  • Osteopathic cranial manipulative medicine. Your DO applies soft pressure to your skull to stimulate healing.

Some find that this natural treatment helps in place of drugs or surgery for some conditions. It's often used for muscle pain, but it can help treat a wide range of health problems, including:

  • Low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Sports injuries
  • Repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Some headaches, including migraines
  • Asthma
  • Sinus problems
  • Menstrual pain

Some pediatric DOs use OMT to help treat asthma, earaches, and colic. So far, only a small number of good studies have looked at the use of OMT in children. The results have been mixed.

You may feel soreness for a day or two after the treatment. There are usually no other side effects. Depending on your case, your DO may find that you also need other treatments, such as medicine or surgery.