For most of us, health professionals fall into two categories: those whose services our insurance will cover, and those we’ve got to pay out of our own pockets. For folks interested in holistic health care or integrative medicine, the blending of nontraditional therapies with more mainstream approaches, treating an illness can be a costly undertaking.
So what’s an informed—and budget-minded—health care consumer to do? A number of possible solutions come to mind, including winning the lottery, waging a successful revolution against insurance companies, or finding yourself a good osteopath.
Clearly, the first two solutions aren’t likely to pan out anytime soon. So then, if you’re like most people, you’re left wondering, “What in the heck is an osteopath? And how could one help me?”
Osteopathy, a practice of medicine based on the manipulation of bones and muscles, was first promoted in 1874 by Kansas physician A.T. Still, and the first school of osteopathy opened at Kirksville, Missouri in 1892. Now licensed to practice in all 50 states, osteopaths believe that displaced bones, nerves, and muscles are at the root of many ailments. Doctors of osteopathy, or D.O.’s, undergo the same level of training that M.D.’s do. They can prescribe medicine and perform surgeries, and, like M.D.’s, often select a specialized area of practice, such as neurology, internal medicine, pediatrics, or obstetrics/gynecology. Most insurance companies cover their services. (This is also true of chiropractors, some of whom pursue a holistic approach to health care.)
So what sets osteopaths apart from your run-of-the-mill M.D.? It’s all in the integration, writes Jonn Salovaara in the Chicago natural-living monthly Conscious Choice (June 2001): “Since the founding of osteopathy, its practitioners have integrated the best medical wisdom of the day with their own manual adjustment methods. Today, you may find an osteopath who embodies, as a single physician, a fairly wide range of complementary practices.”
These practices include acupuncture and gentle soft tissue and joint manipulation, known as osteopathic manipulation techniques, or OMT. However, only a small percentage of modern osteopaths (some sources say as little as 6 percent) use OMT on a majority of their patients. Most visits with an osteopath may seem strikingly similar to a visit with an M.D., says Janet Horan, assistant director of socioeconomic affairs for the American Osteopathic Association. The difference is in an osteopath’s approach to treating disease.
“An osteopath looks at the whole body,” Horan explains. “An M.D. is more disease-focused. If you have a pain in the gall bladder area, for instance, an M.D. would be focused on treating the gall bladder alone. An osteopath would look at the gall bladder, but he’d also look at other areas of your body to try to understand the underlying reason for the problem. At a first appointment, a D.O. takes a lot of time with each patient, taking down a long health history. They believe that if a person’s body is properly aligned, then the body will heal itself. They don’t tend to be big prescribers of drugs.”
There are now more than 47,000 practicing D.O.’s in the United States, according to the American Osteopathic Association, and the field appears to be gaining interest among medical students. (Some osteopathic medical schools are connected to universities.) In the past decade, for instance, the number of licensed osteopaths in the United States grew by 50 percent.
Not all osteopaths favor an alternative approach to healing, so Salovaara suggests researching and interviewing a D.O. before making an appointment for treatment. Once you find an osteopath who suits your needs, you may be surprised at the sorts of solutions he or she suggests.
“I had chronic bursitis in my hip,” Horan says. “I went to a bunch of M.D.’s trying to get some relief. Some said it was arthritis. I tried drugs. I had cortisone shots. It didn’t help. I finally went to a D.O. who discovered that one of my legs was longer than the other. I got a lift in my shoe and I have not had hip pain since.”
Looking back on the experience, Horan, who formerly worked for the American Medical Association, says she is comforted by the osteopathic tendency to consider the root cause of a disorder, rather than just the disorder itself. This concept makes some practices of osteopathy similar to many Eastern medicines.
“None of the M.D.’s I consulted looked at my other leg,” Horan laughs. “When the D.O. did, it turned out to be a simple solution. And a simple solution is what most of us are hoping for.”
Conscious Choice: The Journal of Ecology and Natural Living
The American Osteopathic Association
Osteopathy and Posture
American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine