An approach to the practice of medicine that incorporates the usual forms of medical diagnosis and treatment, but emphasizes the role of the musculoskeletal system in health and disease. Osteopathic medicine was pioneered in 1874 by Andrew Taylor Still, M.D., D.O., an American physician who was dissatisfied with the shortcomings of 19th-century medicine. Convinced that many of the medicines used at the time were useless or harmful, he emphasized preventive medicine, including proper diet and exercise. He also recognized the relationships between different organ systems in the body and the important role of the musculoskeletal system.
Like an M.D., a doctor of osteopathic medicine (or D.O.) is a physician who has completed four years of medical school, is licensed to prescribe drugs and perform surgery, and can elect to practice in any specialty of medicine. Most osteopaths, however, practice a form of primary care such as internal medicine, family practice, pediatrics, or obstetrics and gynecology. Philosophically, doctors of osteopathy are supposed to treat the “whole person” rather than just a set of symptoms. In addition to prescribing medical treatments, osteopaths are taught to serve as teachers, helping people learn to take responsibility for their own health and to adopt healthier lifestyle patterns.
Osteopaths traditionally try to allow the body to regain its natural ability to heal itself. One of the tenets of osteopathic medicine is that a person’s history of illness and physical trauma is “written” into the body’s structure. Osteopaths learn to palpate (examine by touch) the flow of fluids, the texture and movement of tissue, and the body’s structural makeup. Part of osteopathic training is learning to gently manipulate the body to ensure healthy movement of tissues, known as osteopathic manual medicine (OMM) or osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT). This process is becoming less common, however, as many of its alleged benefits have not been supported by scientific studies. In practice, treatment by an osteopath is often no different from treatment by an M.D.