What is Osteopathy, Anyway?

When I was studying pre-med at the University of Maryland back in the 1980’s, a young man from the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine came to speak to our Pre-med Society. I had never heard of osteopathic medicine, but was intrigued by this enthusiastic, personable student and what he had to say.

In his presentation, he explained that osteopathy had been founded in the 19th century by Andrew Taylor Still, a frontier M.D. who had become discouraged by the ineffectiveness of the medicines that were available to doctors around the time of the Civil War. Dr. Still was astute and observant, and had noticed as a boy that he could make his headaches go away by stretching a sling between two trees and lying on the ground with his neck resting on the sling. He studied anatomy and physiology in excruciating detail and discovered that he could use the musculoskeletal system of the body as a portal to the other body systems to help restore all bodily functions to their natural state of health.

Based on his self-directed study, Dr. Still formulated the following principles of osteopathy:

  • The body works as a unit.
  • The body is self-regulating and self-healing.
  • Structure and function are interdependent, so that if normal structure is lost, the body cannot function normally.
  • A rational approach to treatment depends on the first three principles.

The first school of Osteopathy was founded by Dr. Still in Kirksville, Missouri in 1892. Now there are about 30 schools of osteopathic medicine in this country and the number is growing. There are currently two schools in Florida (one in Bradenton and one in Ft. Lauderdale-Davie), one in Georgia, near Atlanta, and there will soon be another in Dothan, Alabama.

When the time came for me to apply to medical school, I agonized over the decision to become an M.D. or a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathy). The holistic approach of osteopathic medicine, the emphasis on treating the patient as a person and not as a disease and the philosophy of treating the cause of a problem rather than just the symptoms had enormous appeal for me. But what if I went to medical school for 4 years and completed  a multi-year residency, only to find that my efforts would not be recognized by patients or other physicians? At age 37, I wasn’t a spring chicken anymore. Finally, I decided to follow my heart and apply to osteopathic school. And I have never regretted that decision.

Medical school had been described to me as being similar to standing in front of a fire hydrant and trying to drink all the water that was spilling forth from it.  I found this to be a fairly accurate description. There was so much to learn. I soon realized that we were expected to learn not only what M.D.s learn, but also how to treat patients with our hands in OMM lab. (OMM stands for Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine). OMM appealed to me deeply. It was so gratifying to see someone feel better immediately after a treatment. So when I graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1993 and became a resident at the Tallahassee Memorial Family Practice Residency Program, I made it a priority to incorporate OMM into my practice. Fortunately, the MD faculty members of the program were supportive of my desire to continue to develop my hands on skills and not only allowed me to spend time with osteopaths in the Washington D.C. area who do nothing but OMM, but they also made it possible for me to use OMM to treat patients at the residency program.

In January, 2011, after working for fifteen years as a family practitioner in Tallahassee (eleven of them at Capital Health Plan), I decided to open my own practice in Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine at 1030 E. Lafayette Street. I call my practice Intrinsic Health, because the treatments I give help bring out the natural health that we all have within, but that sometimes gets distorted by our hectic lifestyles and the repetitive stresses and strains that modern life exerts on our bodies.

Most of my patients seek me out because they have musculoskeletal complaints such as back or neck pain, plantar fasciitis, tension headaches, TMJ problems and shoulder pain. They usually don’t realize that treating the strain patterns within the body that lead to these pains, also allows for better functioning of the body in general, by taking pressure off arteries and allowing them to oxygenate tissues more effectively, as well as to remove waste products and carry them to the lungs or kidneys for removal from the body. Osteopathic treatment also helps with the circulation of lymph, boosting the body’s immune system and helping the body fight off illness more effectively.  It can also help with digestive and respiratory function. Although I haven’t been prescribing medications, I still like to act as a resource for my patients regarding the best way for them to determine what to eat for optimum health. I have learned that everyone is different and what is good for one person, may not be so good for another.

So, what is osteopathy, anyway? It can mean different things to different people, so I advise anyone who is considering consulting a D.O. to call his or her office in advance and inquire about the scope of that physician’s practice. Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine, the hands on treatment of the musculoskeletal and organ systems, requires time and effort to learn and it can require longer office visits than some practitioners can feasibly schedule into their busy days. Even among D.O.s who practice only with their hands, there is a wide variety of styles of practice. No two D.O.s practice exactly alike, but that just reflects the philosophy of our founder, Andrew Taylor Still. He encouraged his students to find the way to treat that worked best for them and their patients. What I can say is that the osteopaths with whom I have had the privilege to work and study are dedicated people with good hearts and a genuine desire to facilitate the good health of their patients.

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