When you think of going to a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO)—if it even occurs to you to see this type of doctor—what often comes to mind is someone who manipulates your joints and muscles to help relieve pain and discomfort. But that’s only part of what a DO can do.

Latest development: An increasing body of recent scientific evidence shows that DOs can also effectively treat a host of other ailments, including respiratory problems, headaches and heart disease, with the use of a hands-on therapy known as osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT).


Like medical doctors (MDs), DOs attend four years of medical school, complete internships and residencies and are licensed to practice in every area of medicine, from internal medicine to geriatrics.

A key difference: Unlike MDs, DOs receive additional training in the musculoskeletal system—the body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles and bones—learning how to promote wellness and treat illness by using OMT. This method is used to diagnose, treat and prevent illness or injury by moving the patient’s muscles and joints with stretches, gentle pressure, isometrics (the tensing and relaxing of muscles) and other hands-on techniques. This approach supplements conventional medical treatments, such as prescription medication and/or surgery when appropriate.


In addition to treating muscle or joint pain, such as low-back pain or neck pain, specialized DOs can use OMT—often as an adjunct to conventional care such as medication—to help treat…

Respiratory problems. OMT can help ease respiratory problems, such as pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma.

Scientific evidence: In a study published in September 2016 in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 387 people age 50 and older who were hospitalized with pneumonia were divided into groups—one group received a combination of OMT and conventional care (such as antibiotics and fluid replacement), while another received only conventional care. Patients who received OMT had fewer in-hospital deaths…were less likely to require a ventilator…and had hospital stays that were more than a day shorter than the conventional care group. Also, because OMT improves the body’s circulation, antibiotics can be more easily delivered.

How osteopathy can be used for respiratory problems: With a technique known as muscle energy, a DO can stretch the muscle in the thorax (between the neck and abdomen), and the patient can perform isometric movements that involve tensing and relaxing muscles to improve lung function.

• Headaches. Increasingly, OMT is being used to quell headache and migraine pain.

Scientific evidence: In a study published in April 2015 in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, among 105 adults with chronic migraines, those receiving OMT had fewer days with migraines, less pain, better daily function and took less migraine medication.

How osteopathy can be used for headaches: OMT for headaches can include muscle energy and craniosacral manipulation, in which gentle touch is used to relax the cranial bones of the skull. These treatments stimulate the flow of spinal fluid, which is believed to help the central nervous system function better and reduce pain.

• Cardiovascular disease. Few people realize that OMT can play an important role in treating cardiovascular disease.

Scientific evidence: In a study published in May 2013 in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 53 adults undergoing coronary bypass surgery were divided into three groups—one received daily OMT following surgery, another group got placebo OMT and the last group got only conventional post-op care. Those who received OMT were released from the hospital earlier and were up and about soonest.

How osteopathy can be used for cardiovascular disease: In addition to muscle energy, OMT for cardiovascular disease can include hands-on therapy to improve impaired cardiac lymph flow.

• Digestive problems. Digestive diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), cause troubling symptoms such as abdominal cramping, flatulence, diarrhea and/or constipation.

Scientific evidence: A review of five studies showed that OMT improved IBS better than conventional care that included fiber supplements, laxatives, antibiotics, antidepressants and psychological treatment. The participants who received OMT had less severity of IBS symptoms, including abdominal pain, and better quality of life. Other research has shown that OMT can improve heartburn and Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease of the intestines.

How osteopathy can be used: It’s believed that OMT helps normalize the flow of blood and lymphatic fluids to restore motility and elasticity of the gastrointestinal tract.


Schools of osteopathic medicine have more than doubled in the US over the past few decades. Nearly one-quarter of all enrolled medical school students are studying to be DOs, and Americans are increasingly relying on them as primary care physicians and specialists.* While insurance companies do not distinguish between care provided by a DO or an MD, coverage of OMT, like other treatments, depends on the insurance plan. A typical course of treatment from an OMT specialist (for conditions such as those in this article) ranges from six to eight treatments over a two to four-week period.

*To find a doctor of osteopathic medicine near you, consult the American Osteopathic Association’s website, DoctorsThatDo.org.

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