Osteopathy: What Is It and Who Needs It?

Osteopathy is an alternative practice of medicine that involves the manipulation of the body's tissues and bones to enhance the body's self-healing process. Osteopathic principles treat the body as a single, functioning unit, and osteopathic practitioners believe that the body can heal itself with proper structural alignment. In most cases, the word osteopathy refers to osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT); however, it has also been referred to as osteopathic manipulative therapy.

Key takeaways:

Who practices osteopathy?

Osteopathy is practiced mainly by osteopathic physicians, referred to as doctors of osteopathy or DOs. They receive specialized training in the manipulation of the body's tissues, muscles, and bones. Manipulation is the application of manual pressure or force to produce a therapeutic benefit.

Some medical doctors (MD), called allopathic physicians, take special courses and practice this discipline.

What is an osteopathic physician?

Osteopathic physicians attend medical school with a similar curriculum to traditional (allopathic) MD schools but with an extra emphasis on manual manipulation to assist with physiological functioning. Osteopathic physicians are licensed by the state where they practice. They can diagnose and treat most medical conditions, prescribe medications, and perform surgeries — like allopathic (MD) doctors. Thus, they are not limited to musculoskeletal problems.

Sometimes, they attend the same residency and fellowship programs as MD doctors.

Osteopathy: who is it for?

Osteopathy can be helpful for people with musculoskeletal, digestive, and respiratory disorders.

People with musculoskeletal disorders

Osteopathy has been shown to help people with musculoskeletal disorders since the treatment is directly applied to the musculoskeletal system, including:

  • Low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Arthritis
  • Sports injuries

People with digestive disorders

For certain digestive disorders, osteopathic manipulation helps as a complementary therapy in addition to traditional treatments like medications and surgery. Even though the clinical evidence is lacking to support osteopathy in treating gastrointestinal disorders, many people claim it helps their condition.

The theory behind OMT helping digestive disorders is that musculoskeletal imbalances could affect the digestive system in various ways, and correcting this imbalance helps alleviate the symptoms.

The following are types of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions in which people claim their symptoms are helped with OMT:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can cause symptoms of abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, loose stools, and cramps.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) produces a burning in the esophagus.
  • Hiatal hernia is when part of the stomach is pushed up through the diaphragm muscle. Adjustment to the musculoskeletal system could help lower the hiatal hernia.
  • Chronic constipation can be helped by OMT to the abdominal and pelvic areas.
  • Stress management — OMT helps relieve stress, leading to an improvement in digestive activities.

People with respiratory disorders

It is theorized that OMT improves posture at the spine, ribs, and chest wall areas to enhance the body’s overall health and improve the respiratory system. Some respiratory conditions that people claim are helped by OMT include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and bronchitis.

In these conditions, OMT can help if there are restrictions in the thoracic (middle) spine, chest wall, and rib areas. Opening these areas helps with better airflow and improves breathing.

Osteopathy vs. physio

Osteopathy differs from physio depending on the following: goals and treatment, education and training, and scope of practice.

Goals and treatment

The goals of osteopathy and physiotherapy are the same: relieve muscle pain and tension, increase mobility, and improve the overall quality of life. Note that physio is also known as physiotherapy or physical therapy.

While osteopathy involves treating the entire body to achieve harmonious functioning, physio involves treating that particular area of the body causing the pain.

While osteopathy involves manual manipulation with the hands, physio uses the hands in addition to devices, such as electrical stimulation, ultrasound, hot and cold therapy, and other devices, such as massagers and roller balls.

Physical therapy is oriented to functionality and geared toward improved function of the injured area and rehabilitation. Patient education is important in physical therapy programs.

Education and training

As mentioned above, osteopaths are licensed medical doctors who receive additional training in osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM).

Physical therapists usually have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in physical therapy. They undergo extensive training in anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and rehabilitation techniques. However, they do not have the same level of medical training as osteopathic physicians.

Scope of practice

Osteopaths can diagnose and treat a wide range of diseases and disorders.

Physical therapists only treat musculoskeletal disorders to improve movement, reduce pain, and enhance functionality. However, they do not diagnose or treat medical conditions like osteopaths or medical doctors.

Is osteopathy a simple massage?

No, osteopathy is not a simple massage — but massage is one of the techniques used by osteopaths. However, it is combined with muscle and spinal stretching and resistance to release tension and improve the overall health of the body’s systems.

Osteopathy can be helpful for musculoskeletal conditions and has been reported to help with digestive and respiratory issues. It is performed by trained doctors of osteopathic medicine.

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