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The Complete Idiot's Guide to Alternative Medicine
- 3 -
Osteopathy: Boning Up
In This Chapter
- Basic concepts of osteopathy
- Differences and similarities between osteopathy and standard medicine
- How osteopathy helps lower-back aches and other painful problems
- Why osteopathy is becoming more popular
- Finding a qualified osteopath
Modern medicine has lots of great tools--things like CAT scans, miracle drugs, and advanced microsurgery. Osteopathic medicine uses them all but adds a couple more: the doctor's own two hands.
That's because osteopathic medicine believes that most illnesses can be traced back to an imbalance in the bones and muscles that form the basic framework of your body. To straighten you out again, osteopathic doctors use gentle touch and manipulation on your muscles and joints.
They don't stop there, though. Osteopathic doctors look at you as a whole person, not just a set of symptoms. They realize that your diet, your lifestyle, and your emotional health are all important to your overall health. That's why a lot of people call osteopathy the original holistic medicine--and that's why osteopathy is one of the fastest-growing areas in healthcare.
Frontier Medicine in the Modern World
Osteopathic medicine, or osteopathy, began back in the 1870s with a frontier doctor named Andrew Taylor Still. Back then, doctors were more likely to harm or even kill their patients than to help them. Dr. Still decided that the best way to help his patients was to help them help themselves. He believed that the body's musculoskeletal system--your bones, muscles, joints, ligaments, and connective tissues--is crucial to good health. It's the framework that supports your entire body; in fact, it makes up about 60 percent of your weight. And if your musculoskeletal system gets out of whack, other parts of your body--even organs like your heart or lungs--are affected. Dr. Still began to develop methods to find the problems in his patients' musculo-skeletal systems. Once he found the abnormality or imbalance, he would use touch and gentle manipulation of the muscles and joints to get them realigned. He found that his manipulations helped to stimulate the body's own self-healing powers. His patients improved, often without the use of drugs or surgery.
In Other Words...
Osteopathy, also known as osteopathic medicine, is a branch of medicine that believes that your body structure--your bones and muscles--and the rest of your body functions operate together. The word comes from the Greek word osteo-, meaning bone, and pathy, meaning "disease." Those who practice osteopathy believe that imbalances in your body structure cause disease and that restoring the balance will restore health.
Dr. Still founded the first college of osteopathy in 1892. Naturally, he ran into a lot of opposition from the medical establishment, but his methods were so successful and popular that osteopathy became the first true form of alternative medicine. That's mostly because students at osteopathic colleges got pretty much the same scientific training as medical doctors--but they also learned the techniques of osteopathic touch.
The Healing Arts
When Andrew Taylor Still, M.D. (1828-1917), was a doctor on the Missouri frontier in the 1870s, standard medical practice was downright dangerous to your health. Doctors routinely prescribed potent drugs that contained mercury, arsenic, calomel, and other poisonous substances. They scoffed at the idea that microscopic germs could cause disease and saw nothing wrong with using the same unwashed scalpel over and over again. After losing his wife and three of his children to serious disease, Dr. Still decided there had to be a better way. He went back to a basic principle of medicine--helping patients heal themselves from within.osteopathic colleges got pretty much the same scientific training as medical doctors--but they also learned the techniques of osteopathic touch.
For a long time, osteopathy ran on a parallel track to conventional medicine. Graduates of osteopathic colleges got the degree D.O., for doctor of osteopathy, instead of M.D., or medical doctor. They had their own practices and sent their patients to osteopathic hospitals. They did a lot of touching and manipulating, and they didn't prescribe drugs or surgery very often.
Over the years, the two tracks got much closer. In the late 1930s, osteopathic training got a lot tougher. By 1972, regulatory changes made D.O.s and M.D.s essentially equal. These are the only types of complete physicians in the United States. Both types of doctors do four years of basic medical education and then go on for several years of additional training as interns and residents. Both D.O.s and M.D.s have to pass comparable types of state licensing exams. Today osteopathic physicians practice in every area of medicine, from gynecology to surgery to psychiatry. Even so, about half of all osteopathic doctors put their holistic training to use as primary care physicians rather than choose narrow specialties.
In Other Words...
The abbreviation D.O. stands for doctor of osteopathy. For all practical purposes, it's the equivalent of the more traditional M.D., or medical doctor, degree. A D.O., also called an osteopath, can do every-thing an M.D. can, including prescribe drugs, perform surgery, and admit you to the hospital.
Osteopathy on the Rise
In the past few years, osteopathy has become a lot more popular--to the point of more than 100 million visits to D.O.s every year. Why? Many patients prefer the personal, hands-on (literally) approach of osteopaths. They also like the holistic approach of osteopathy, with its emphasis on wellness and a healthy lifestyle. Osteopaths believe that the body heals itself, not that drugs or surgery do the healing--a belief that more and more patients agree with.
At a time when traditional medical schools are cutting back on graduates, osteopathic medical schools are growing. In 1968, there were just five osteopathic colleges; in 1998, there were 19, with several more in the planning stages. In 1975, there were only around 15,000 osteopathic physicians; in 1989, there were still only 25,000. In 1999, there are about 40,000, and there'll probably be more than 45,000 by 2005.
Because osteopathy takes the holistic approach and stresses both good body motion and good nutrition, it has become very, very popular with athletes--both the professional and the weekend-warrior kind. A lot of team physicians these days are osteopaths.
The Healing Arts
As of 1998, there were about 48,000 osteopaths in the United States. Although they make up only about 5 percent of all the 700,000 or so doctors, D.O.s make up almost 10 percent of all primary care doctors. Because many D.O.s feel a doctor should have a personal relationship with his or her patients, they prefer to practice in small towns and medically underserved communities. In rural areas with populations of less than 10,000, D.O.s provide about 15 percent of the primary care.
According to osteopathic thinking, physical or emotional stress, an injury, or poor posture affects your musculoskeletal system. Some part of your body then tenses up and gets painful. The pain makes you tense up even more, which pulls your body even more out of line, which makes it even more painful. You get the picture: A nasty pain-tension cycle sets in. If it goes on long enough, it starts to affect not just your muscles and joints but also your organs. By the same token, a problem with an organ--kidney trouble, say--could first show up as back pain. An osteopath can usually tell where the pain comes from and why--which could get you the right diagnosis and treatment faster.
To break the pain-tension cycle, a D.O. uses osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT). The idea is to correct the problem by gently getting the affected area back into line.
Osteopathic manipulative therapy has three basic goals:
- Relieving tension in your musculoskeletal system so that the muscles, ligaments, and joints return to their proper alignment.
- Improving your blood circulation and stimulating your nervous system. The pain-tension cycle tightens your musculoskeletal system so much that it reduces blood flow in the affected area and presses painfully on nerves.
- Improving body mechanics. Poor posture and other imbalances in your body can cause health problems.
In Other Words...
Osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT) is the overall term for a variety of hands-on physical techniques used to diagnose and treat musculoskeletal problems.
If you need OMT, your osteopath will use one or more of several manipulation techniques:
- Mobilization. Gently moving a painful joint to give it greater mobility.
- Soft-tissue techniques. Methods that use rhythmic stretching, deep pressure, pushing or pulling, and tensing and releasing to relax muscles.
- Functional and positional release. The osteopath moves your body into particular positions that let the tense muscles relax.
- Thrust technique. Sometimes, when you really can't move some part of your body, the osteopath uses a quick push, sometimes called a high-velocity thrust, to get it moving again. The thrust is painless, but you may hear a perfectly normal clicking sound as the joint moves into a better position.
- Lymphatic technique. This technique is said to help your immune system by improving the circulation of the lymph fluids. It's sometimes used in cases of illness and infection--along with, not instead of, any necessary antibiotics.
OMT works painlessly and well--sometimes amazingly well--on people with knee problems, lower-back pain, neck problems, headaches, and chronic pain. Many patients say it helps with other problems, such as migraines and menstrual pain.
It's less clear how helpful OMT is for a lot of problems. An osteopath would treat a case of pneumonia, for example, with regular medical methods, including any needed drugs, along with special attention to your nutrition and possibly the lymphatic technique.
Overall, osteopaths use OMT on only about a quarter of their patients--or even fewer. Some osteopaths use OMT so rarely that you can hardly tell them from a regular M.D.
In addition to OMT, osteopaths also teach their patients relaxation techniques, better breathing methods, and ways to improve their posture and working positions. They often provide nutritional counseling and recommend supplements.
It's All in Your Head: Cranial Osteopathy
Cranial osteopathy is a controversial offshoot of regular osteopathy. Practitioners of cranial osteopathy believe that the bones of your skull, rather than being fused solidly together, actually are flexible and can move to some extent. (Remember that the next time someone calls you a blockhead!) The movement of the skull bones has an effect on the flow of the fluid that bathes your brain and spinal column. In addition, the fluid is said to have its own pulse, separate from your heartbeat or breathing. Cranial osteopaths claim that they can feel the cranial pulse and detect subtle changes and blockages in the motion of your skull bones.
By using very gentle OMT and massage, osteopaths say they can relieve the blockages and help problems such as headaches, the effects of stroke, spinal cord injuries, depression, and many other ailments. Cranial osteopathy is also said to help children who have learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder (ADD).
In Other Words...
Cranial osteopathy, also sometimes called craniosacral therapy or cranial therapy, focuses on the bones of your skull. Cranial osteopaths claim that they can gently manipulate your skull to diagnose illness, relieve pain, and even cure problems such as chronic fatigue and hyperactivity.
The evidence for cranial osteopathy is a little sketchy, although the existence of the cranial pulse has recently been proven. What still hasn't been proven is whether the cranial pulse has anything to do with your health.
Most mainstream osteopaths don't use the technique. A lot of osteopaths, dentists, and physical therapists have been taught how to do it, though, and they claim that it can really benefit some patients. Dentists in particular say cranial osteopathy can be very helpful, especially for people with jaw pain (you'll learn more about this in Chapter 7, "Holistic Dentistry: Sinking Your Teeth into Health").
A Visit to the Osteopath
Going to an osteopathic physician is very much like going to any doctor. You might go because it's time for a checkup, or because you're not feeling well, or because you've injured yourself somehow. Whatever the reason, your osteopath will do all the usual medical things, like draw blood for diagnostic tests, that any doctor would. Unlike most medical doctors, however, an osteopath will also look at your body framework--the way you stand, walk, sit, and hold your head. He or she will do a structural examination of your body to find any tenderness or loss of motion in your soft tissues and joints. If necessary, your treatment will include OMT and other treatments to correct any imbalances.
To Your Health!
Many muscle and joint problems are helped quickly by OMT--back pain from a muscle spasm could be gone in just one visit. It's more likely that you'll need three to six visits of about 20 to 30 minutes each to resolve the problem, though.
Your medical insurance will pay for your treatment exactly as if you had gone to see an M.D. In fact, the insurance company may prefer that you see an osteopath. That's because in some cases osteopaths deliver more bang for the buck than medical doctors. Their patients tend to get over problems like back injuries faster, which cuts down on disability costs. If your osteopath sends you to the hospital, you're likely to have a slightly shorter stay--and given today's hospital costs, even a day less saves a lot of money. Insurance companies aren't too keen on craniosacral osteopathy, however, and your insurer may not want to pay for it. Check before you get started.
Finding an Osteopath
Osteopaths today are well trained in basic medicine and osteopathic techniques. Most have done internships and residencies at teaching hospitals and can handle any sort of medical problem. To find an osteopath near you, contact:
American Osteopathic Association 142 East Ontario Street Chicago, IL 60611 Phone: (800) 621-1773 Fax: (312) 202-8204 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
For varying reasons, not all osteopaths use a lot of OMT. If you'd like to find one who makes it an important part of his or her practice, contact:
American Academy of Osteopathy 3500 DePauw Boulevard, Suite 1080 Indianapolis, IN 46268-1136 Phone: (317) 879-1881 Fax: (317) 879-0563
Both organizations can give you useful information about osteopathy and help you decide if a particular osteopath is the right one for you.
Are You Being Manipulated?
Today the parallel universes of the D.O.s and the M.D.s are converging closer and closer. Some M.D.s remain dubious. They point out that the admission standards for osteopathic colleges are slightly lower than those for medical colleges. Frankly, that criticism sounds a little feeble to us. Another education criticism, one that carries more weight, is that osteopathic colleges have much smaller faculties, so students get less direct attention and supervision.
Many medical doctors feel that OMT is useful only for the relief of back pain and that it shouldn't be used to diagnose or treat anything else. They point out, rightly, that there just aren't enough good studies to justify a lot of the OMT claims. Most osteopaths agree and use OMT only where they feel it will really help. They're also trying hard to design and carry out better studies.
The biggest medical objection to osteopathy today is aimed at craniosacral therapy. There's very little proof that it works or that the separate craniosacral pulse has any relation to your health. The medical doctors--and, to be honest, a lot of osteopaths as well--say it's nothing but quackery.
The Least You Need to Know
- Osteopathic medicine takes a holistic approach to health that emphasizes wellness and prevention.
- Osteopaths believe that your musculoskeletal system--the bones and muscles that are the framework of your body--is crucial to good health. Imbalances in the framework are painful and can lead to problems in other parts of the body.
- Today osteopaths (D.O.s) and medical doctors (M.D.s) have very similar training and qualifications. Osteopaths can do anything medical doctors can, including prescribing drugs and performing surgery.
- In addition to standard medical therapies, osteopaths often use osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT).
- Osteopathic manipulation is often very helpful for treating lower-back pain, joint problems, sports injuries, headaches, and other problems.