What does an osteopath do?

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What is an Osteopath?

An osteopath, also referred to as an osteopathic physician or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO), is a fully trained doctor who has attended and graduated from an osteopathic medical school and practises the system of healthcare known as osteopathy.

A doctor of medicine (MD), also known as an allopathic physician, has attended and graduated from a conventional medical school. In some respects, a DO is much like an MD. Both receive extensive medical training, complete a residency, and are licensed to practise medicine in all 50 US states. And both are permitted to prescribe drugs, perform surgery, use advanced imaging technologies to diagnose and treat illness or injury, and serve as primary care physicians in areas such as family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics. The major difference between the two is one of philosophy.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), ‘osteopathic medicine is a distinctive form of medical care founded on the philosophy that all body systems are interrelated and dependent upon one another for good health.’

This holistic philosophy means that osteopaths are trained to look at the whole person from their first days of medical school. They see each person as more than a collection of organ systems and body parts that may become injured or diseased. They consider all aspects of the patient, not just the symptoms they exhibit. They see the integrated nature of the body’s organ systems and its capacity for self-regulation and self-healing.

These principles acknowledge the importance of the musculoskeletal system and its role in health and disease, and they emphasize the osteopathic perspective that the body’s natural state is wellness and the patient is a partner in the healthcare process.

An osteopath considers human anatomy when dealing with a patient. This is a detailed image of a shoulder; the muscle, bone structure, and arteries.

What does an Osteopath do?

Many osteopaths practise in primary care, specifically in family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics. DOs also practise in all medical specialties, including:

  • Anesthesiology
  • Allergy and Immunology
  • Child Neurology
  • Dermatology
  • Diagnostic Radiology
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Family Medicine
  • Internal Medicine
  • Medical Genetics
  • Neurodevelopmental Disorders
  • Neurology
  • Neurological Surgery
  • Nuclear Medicine
  • Obstetrics / Gynecology (OB / GYN)
  • Oncology
  • Ophthalmology
  • Orthopedic Surgery
  • Neuromusculoskeletal Medicine / Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (NMM / OMM)
  • Otolaryngology
  • Pathology
  • Pediatrics
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Preventive Medicine
  • Psychiatry
  • Surgery
  • Thoracic Surgery
  • Urology
  • Vascular Surgery

The top five non-primary care specialties in which osteopaths practise are emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), anesthesiology, surgery, and psychiatry. Osteopathic medicine also has a special focus on providing care in rural and urban underserved areas.

As noted in the sections above, DOs take a whole-body healing approach to medicine. However, this is not the only characteristic that distinguishes them from the MDs. Osteopaths regularly specialize in neuromusculoskeletal medicine / osteopathic manipulative medicine. They provide manual medicine therapies, such as spinal manipulation or massage therapy, as part of their treatment and they utilize osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT).

An osteopath working on a patient's back and spine.

Osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) is a hands-on method used to treat mechanical pain – muscle, tendon, or bone pain due to structural imbalance – and a wide range of health conditions. It is also used to diagnose and prevent disease and help the body function better as whole. OMT involves applying light pressure, resistance, and stretching to manipulate the muscles, soft tissues, and joints. It encourages the body to heal itself through proper alignment and balance.

For detailed information on the many techniques of OMT, please read our osteopathic medicine degree content.

In addition to caring for their patients, osteopaths conduct clinical and basic science research to contribute to advances in medicine, and to demonstrate the effectiveness of the integrative approach to patient care that is the underpinning of osteopathic medicine.

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What is the workplace of an Osteopath like?

Nearly all osteopaths go into private practice. Others work for osteopathic hospitals or in group practice clinics, which feature related practitioners such as chiropractors and acupuncturists. Self-employed osteopaths may offer treatment services in clients’ homes.

Osteopaths typically work between 45 and 50 hours a week, and may work some evenings or weekends to accommodate patients’ schedules.

Frequently Asked Questions

Chiropractor vs Osteopath

Chiropractors and osteopaths are both healthcare professionals who focus on the musculoskeletal system and its related disorders. While there are similarities between the two professions, there are also distinct differences in their philosophies, approaches, and training. Here's a breakdown of each:

A chiropractor specializes in diagnosing and treating mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, particularly those related to the spine. They primarily focus on spinal adjustments or manipulations to correct misalignments, improve joint function, and alleviate pain. Chiropractors often emphasize the relationship between the spine and the nervous system, believing that spinal dysfunction can affect overall health.

Their treatment approach typically involves manual techniques like spinal adjustments, mobilizations, soft tissue therapies, and exercise prescription. In addition to hands-on treatments, chiropractors may provide nutritional advice and lifestyle recommendations to support the body's natural healing processes. To become a chiropractor, individuals usually earn a Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree after completing a specialized chiropractic program.

Osteopaths are trained as physicians and have a broader scope of practice compared to chiropractors. While they also focus on the musculoskeletal system, they consider the body as a whole and its interconnected systems. Osteopaths use manual techniques, including joint manipulations, soft tissue mobilization, and stretching, to restore balance, mobility, and function. In addition to addressing musculoskeletal issues, osteopaths also take into account other areas such as the circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems, aiming to improve overall health and well-being.

Osteopathic treatment often involves a holistic approach, considering factors like lifestyle, diet, stress management, and more that may contribute to a patient's condition. Osteopaths complete a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree, which includes training in general medicine as well as osteopathic manipulative treatment.

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Comprehensive List of Doctor Specializations and Degrees

Here is a comprehensive list of specializations that a doctor can pursue and a brief summary of each specialization:

  • Allergist: An allergist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of allergies, asthma, and related conditions. Allergists have specialized training in the recognition and management of allergic reactions.
  • Anesthesiologist: An anesthesiologist keeps a patient comfortable, safe and pain-free during surgery by administering local or general anesthetic.
  • Cardiologist: A cardiologist specializes in finding, treating, and preventing diseases that affect the heart, the arteries, and the veins.
  • Cardiothoracic Surgeon: A cardiothoracic surgeon specializes in surgical procedures inside the thorax (the chest), which may involve the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the chest. As well as performing surgery, they also diagnose and treat diseases of these organs.
  • Chiropractic Neurologist: A chiropractic neurologist is a specialized type of chiropractor who has undergone additional training in the field of neurology. They diagnose and treat conditions that affect the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the nervous system.
  • Chiropractor: A chiropractor, or doctor of chiropractic medicine, specializes in diagnosing and treating disorders of the musculoskeletal and nervous system, especially in the spine. Treatment is usually physical manipulation of the joints and the spine to bring them back into alignment. A chiropractor does not perform surgery or prescribe medication.
  • Colorectal Surgeon: A colorectal surgeon specializes in diseases of the colon, rectum, and anus, as well as the entire gastric tract. These surgeons work closely with urologists, who handle the urogenital tract in males and the urinary tract of women, gynecologists, who deal with specific female issues, and gastroenterologists, who deal with diseases of the gut.
  • Doctor: An general overview of what a doctor does and how to become one.
  • Dentist: Dentists identify potential oral health issues such as gum disease, as well as examine patients, order medical tests and determine the correct diagnosis and treatment. They also perform oral surgery and remove teeth or address other dental health problems.
  • Dermatologist: A dermatologist specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions affecting skin, hair, sweat and oil glands, nails, and mucus membranes (inside the mouth, nose, and eyelids) which can include cancer.
  • Emergency Medicine Physician: An emergency medicine physician works in emergency departments, hospitals, and urgent care clinics, and is often the first medical professional that patients see when they are in need of urgent medical care.
  • Endocrinologist: An endocrinologist specializes in diagnosing conditions and diseases related to the glands and hormones. While primary care doctors know a lot about the human body, for conditions and diseases directly related to glands and hormones they will typically send a patient to an endocrinologist.
  • Family Practitioner: A family practitioner specializes in caring for the entire family. Patients can be children, adults, and the elderly, and are treated for a wide array of medical issues.
  • Forensic Pathologist: A forensic pathologist investigates the cause of sudden and unexpected deaths, and is able to determine how a person died by performing an autopsy and studying tissue and laboratory results. These doctors are often called upon to provide evidence in court regarding the cause and time of such deaths.
  • Gastroenterologist: A gastroenterologist has specific training in diagnosing and treating conditions and diseases of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This may include diseases and disorders that affect the the biliary system (liver, pancreas, gallbladder, and bile ducts), as well as the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine (colon).
  • Geriatrician: A geriatrician specializes in the care of elderly patients, and often works with patients who have multiple chronic conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as age-related cognitive and functional impairments.
  • Gynecologist: A gynecologist specializes in women's reproductive systems. Gynecologists are also sometimes certified as obstetricians, and will monitor the health of the mother and the fetus during a pregnancy.
  • Hematologist: A doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of blood disorders, such as anemia and leukemia.
  • Hospitalist: A hospitalist is a physician whose focus is the general medical care of hospitalized patients. Their duties include patient care, teaching, research, and leadership related to hospital medicine.
  • Immunologist: An immunologist specializes in managing problems related to the immune system, such as allergies and autoimmune diseases. A smaller number of immunologists are strictly researchers seeking to better understand how the immune system works and to help develop better ways of diagnosing and providing treatment for many immunological conditions.
  • Infectious Disease Specialist: A doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.
  • Internist: An internist is a 'doctor of internal medicine' who can diagnose, treat, and practice compassionate care for adults across the spectrum, from health to complex illness. They are not to be mistaken with "interns," who are doctors in their first year of residency training.
  • Medical Examiner: Medical examiners are responsible for performing autopsies and collecting evidence related to the circumstances of a death, including medical history, physical examination findings, and toxicology tests.
  • Naturopathic Physician: A naturopathic physician blends modern scientific medical practice and knowledge with natural and traditional forms of medical treatment. The goal is to treat the underlying causes of disease while stimulating the body's own healing abilities.
  • Nephrologist: A doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of kidney diseases. They treat conditions such as chronic kidney disease, acute kidney injury, kidney stones, hypertension, and electrolyte imbalances.
  • Neurologist: A neurologist specializes in treating diseases that affect the human nervous system. It is a very prestigious and difficult medical specialty due to the complexity of the nervous system, which consists of the brain, the spinal cord and the peripheral nerves.
  • Neurosurgeon: A neurosurgeon specializes in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of disorders of the central and peripheral nervous system. This includes congenital anomalies, trauma, tumours, vascular disorders, infections of the brain or spine, stroke, or degenerative diseases of the spine.
  • Obstetrician: An obstetrician is a medical doctor who specializes in caring for women during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period.
  • Occupational Physician: Occupational medicine is focused on keeping individuals well at work, both mentally and physically. As workplaces become more complex, occupational physicians play an important role in advising people on how their work can affect their health.
  • Oncologist: An oncologist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The three primary types of oncologists are: medical oncologists that specialize in the administration of drugs to kill cancer cells; surgical oncologists that perform surgical procedures to identify and remove cancerous tumors; and radiation oncologists that treat cancer with radiation therapy.
  • Ophthalmologist: An ophthalmologist is a specialist that deals specifically with the structure, function, diseases, and treatment of the eye. Due to the complexities and the importance of the eye as a special sense that provides vision, the discipline of ophthalmology is dedicated solely to this organ.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon: An oral and maxillofacial surgeon treats dental and medical problems involving the oral cavity and the maxillofacial area. The maxillofacial area includes the bones of the forehead, face, cheekbones and the soft tissues. Treatment often involves performing surgery and related procedures to treat diseases, defects, or injuries, and to improve function or appearance.
  • Orthopaedic Surgeon / Orthopedist: An orthopaedic surgeon (or orthopedist) examines, diagnoses, and treats diseases and injuries of the musculoskeletal system. This system includes the bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, tendons, and nerves.
  • Orthodontist: An orthodontist specializes in how the jaws and teeth are aligned. They help people whose teeth are misaligned or require some kind of correction – those with an improper bite, or malocclusion.
  • Osteopath: Osteopaths have attended and graduated from an osteopathic medical school and practise the system of healthcare known as osteopathy. They consider all aspects of the patient, not just the symptoms they exhibit. They see the integrated nature of the body’s organ systems and its capacity for self-regulation and self-healing.
  • Otolaryngologist: Otolaryngologists (or ENT physicians) are specialists trained in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with diseases and disorders of the ear, nose, throat (ENT), and related structures of the head and neck. These specialists are trained in both medicine and surgery.
  • Pathologist: A pathologist studies the causes, nature, and effects of disease. The field of pathology is broad with concentrations on changes in cells, tissues, and organs that are the result of a disease.
  • Pediatrician: A pediatrician specializes in providing medical care to infants, children and teenagers by administering treatments, therapies, medications and vaccinations to treat illness, disorders or injuries.
  • Periodontist: A periodontist is a dentist who specializes in oral inflammation, and who knows how to prevent, diagnose, and treat periodontal disease.
  • Plastic Surgeon: A plastic surgeon specializes in reshaping healthy body parts for aesthetic reasons, and also in repairing or replacing body parts damaged by accidents, illness or malformation.
  • Podiatrist: A podiatrist practices podiatric medicine, which is a branch of science devoted to the diagnosis, treatment and study of medical disorders of the foot, ankle, lower leg and lower back. In the U.S. and Canada, podiatry is practiced as a specialty.
  • Prosthodontist: A prosthodontist specializes in restoring the look, function, comfort, and health of a patient's oral cavity with artificial materials. These artificial materials are made up of a wide variety of restorations that include fillings, dentures, veneers, crowns, bridges and oral implants.
  • Psychiatrist: Psychiatrists are physicians who evaluate, diagnose and treat patients who are affected by a temporary or chronic mental health problem.
  • Pulmonologist: A pulmonologist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of pulmonary (lung) conditions and diseases of the chest, particularly pneumonia, asthma, tuberculosis, emphysema, and complicated chest infections.
  • Radiologist: A radiologist is a specialist in interpreting medical images that may be obtained with x-rays, (CT scans or radiographs), nuclear medicine (involving radioactive substances, magnetism (MRI), or ultrasound.
  • Rheumatologist: A doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  • Sports Medicine Physician: A sports medicine physician specializes in taking care of people who have sports injuries that may be acquired from playing sports, exercising, or from otherwise being physically active.
  • Surgeon: A surgeon performs surgery for the purpose of removing diseased tissue or organs, to repair body systems, or to replace diseased organs with transplants.
  • Urologist: A urologist specializes in the treatment of the male and female urinary tract and the male reproductive organs. Urologists can treat the kidneys, urinary bladder, urethra, uterus, and male reproductive organs. There are also specific specialty areas that urologists may choose to focus on, such as pediatric urology, male infertility, and urologic oncology.
  • Vascular Medicine Specialist - A vascular medicine specialist specializes in the diagnosis and nonsurgical treatment of conditions affecting the blood vessels. They may work with patients who have conditions such as deep vein thrombosis, peripheral artery disease, or pulmonary embolism.
  • Vascular Surgeon - A vascular surgeon specializes in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of conditions affecting the blood vessels, including aneurysms, peripheral artery disease, and varicose veins.

Corresponding Degrees

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Doctor Allergist Anesthesiologist Cardiologist Cardiothoracic Surgeon Chiropractor Colorectal Surgeon Dentist Dermatologist Emergency Medicine Physician Endocrinologist Family Practitioner Forensic Pathologist Gastroenterologist Geriatrician Gynecologist Hematologist Hospitalist Immunologist Infectious Disease Specialist Internist Medical Examiner Naturopathic Physician Nephrologist Neurologist Neurosurgeon Obstetrician Occupational Physician Oncologist Ophthalmologist Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon Orthopaedic Surgeon Orthopedist Orthodontist Otolaryngologist Pathologist Pediatrician Periodontist Plastic Surgeon Podiatrist Prosthodontist Psychiatrist Pulmonologist Radiologist Rheumatologist Sports Medicine Physician Surgeon Urologist Vascular Medicine Specialist Vascular Surgeon Chiropractic Neurologist

Osteopaths are also known as:
Osteopathic Doctor Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine DO Osteopathic Physician