What is an Osteopath?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An osteopath is a medical professional who practices osteopathy. In the United States, osteopaths are governed by the American Osteopathic Association, and they graduate with a doctorate in osteopathy (DO) which is equivalent to an MD degree. Outside the United States, osteopaths experience different levels of regulation, and they often practice complementary medicine, without prescribing rights, the ability to perform surgery, or other medical privileges. Depending on nationality and personal tastes, some people may view an osteopathic doctor as a primary care physician, or as a supplementary healthcare provider.

An osteopathic doctor may be viewed as a primary care physician or a supplementary healthcare provider.
An osteopathic doctor may be viewed as a primary care physician or a supplementary healthcare provider.

The discipline was founded in the late 1800s by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, who was concerned about the direction of modern medicine. He felt that medical practice focused too much on drugs and treating specific symptoms, rather than the body as a whole and its natural desire to remain healthy. He focused particularly on the musculoskeletal system, believing that strong joints, tendons, bones, and muscles would build a strong body. In 1892, he founded the first school of osteopathy.

An osteopath typically practices manipulative medicine treatment in addition to more traditional methods of symptom relief and prevention.
An osteopath typically practices manipulative medicine treatment in addition to more traditional methods of symptom relief and prevention.

Several things differentiate an osteopath from a conventional doctor. Osteopaths place a lot of value on viewing the body as an interconnected whole, rather than an assortment of parts. They also focus on preventative care, including maintaining strong bones. In addition to prescribing medication, performing surgery, and engaging in other traditional medical practice, an osteopath also practices Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT). OMT involves using the hands to examine the body, looking for areas of weakness and joint issues, and manipulating the body gently as needed to treat these issues.

An osteopathic doctor may specialize in pediatric care.
An osteopathic doctor may specialize in pediatric care.

The qualification process for an American osteopath is much like that for a regular doctor, involving extensive schooling, board examinations, and continuing education to retain credentials. An osteopath also chooses a particular field of interest, usually in primary care such as pediatrics, general practice, obstetrics and gynecology, or a similar field. Outside of the United States, osteopaths tend to focus more on natural treatments, since they do not have the same certifications or privileges that doctors do. They also practice OMT extensively, along with craniosacral manipulation, and both believe in the value of preventative medicine and treatments aimed at reducing problems with the bones and joints.

An osteopath can prescribe medication.
An osteopath can prescribe medication.

Patients who would like to work with an osteopathic doctor can generally find one with the assistance of trade organizations, which maintain lists of members in good standing. Patients may also want to consider asking around in their communities to see if anyone knows or or already works with a good osteopath. As is the case with seeking out any sort of professional service from a stranger, patients should not be afraid to ask for qualifications, or to ask questions about the doctor's philosophy and approach to treatment.

Osteopaths believe disturbances in the skeletal system and its supporting muscle tissue can cause a variety of health problems.
Osteopaths believe disturbances in the skeletal system and its supporting muscle tissue can cause a variety of health problems.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

kcmiller

An American-trained DO may practice in Canada and the UK as fully licensed physicians. This is also the case in many other countries (40+ countries) that are aware of the distinction between an American DO and their homegrown 'osteopaths'.

frankjoseph

Anon18501 -- I think your statement is true as it applies to American DOs, except I don't think that DOs do *more* than MDs -- I think they have about the same authority. But, as is the case with most things, regulatory rules vary among countries. So, in non-American countries, as the article states, a DO and MD might not have the same authority as they do in the US. For example, I've heard that in Canada, DOs can't prescribe medication while MDs can.

anon18501

DO's have all the exact same privileges and certifications as an MD and do everything an MD does but more.

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