At a time when we all feel more vulnerable than ever to the risk of disease and other ills, there's one rapidly growing branch of medicine that's focusing on unlocking the body's own remarkable ability to protect and heal itself.
Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, are fully-licensed physicians who receive the same medical training as MDs and practice in all the same areas of medicine, including primary care, family medicine and all the specialties. But DOs go a step further. Schooled in promoting the body's innate tendency toward health and self-healing, DOs receive special additional training in the body's interconnected network of nerves, lymphatic and blood vessels, muscles and bones.
One of the unique, central tools used by DOs to diagnose, treat and prevent illness or injury in patients of all ages is called Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment, or OMT. It's literally hands-on. The DO physically manipulates a patient's muscles, joints and tissues, using several methods including stretching, gentle pressure and resistance.
DOs are able through OMT to detect tenderness, misalignment, range of motion restrictions and tissue abnormalities such as spasms, tensions, unusual temperature or moisture. Those findings may indicate any number of conditions within the body, conditions that often can be treated with further manipulation - either on their own or in combination with other medical and pharmacological treatments.
DOs know that where the pain is being felt by the patient isn't necessarily where the root dysfunction is happening. A person may be presenting with chronic headaches, but the actual dysfunction could be traced to the neck, shoulders, or the upper-, mid- or even lower back. Through OMT, the DO is able to troubleshoot and treat the cause of those headaches.
In another example, a patient may be experiencing abdominal pain, and the DO would do the same diagnostics as an MD to rule out various common causes. But using OMT, the DO would also look for muscular and tissue strains elsewhere in the body - such as the spine, lower back and hips -- that could be causing the abdominal discomfort. OMT also could be used in this example to externally evaluate organs like the liver, gall bladder and kidneys, to determine if the abdominal pain is rooted in those areas.
OMT can be used to ease pain, promote healing and increase mobility. But its effectiveness goes far beyond the muscles and joints. It's used every day to help patients with many other health problems such as asthma, sinus disorders, migraines, menstrual pain, sleep disorders and digestive problems. It's also used increasingly as an adjunct to medication for patients with behavioral issues such as attention deficit and substance use disorders.
The osteopathic medical profession is one of the fastest growing branches in the field, expanding by 63 percent in the past decade and nearly 300 percent over the past three. With more than 120,00 DO's now in practice nationwide, another 7,000 graduating last year and thousands more currently enrolled in medical schools, the profession is now 151,000 strong.
Two key underlying principles of osteopathic medicine are first, that our bodies, minds and spirits are not separate from each other; they all work together, and should be treated that way. A second principle is that there are powerful healing powers within each of us. It's a matter of recognizing and activating them.
The 19th century founder of osteopathic medicine, Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, put it this way long ago: "To find health should be the object of the doctor. Anyone can find disease." It is the physician's responsibility to help patients tap into those healing forces and unlock their full potential.
Now more than ever, the nation's DOs stand ready to meet that responsibility.
J. Boyd Vereen, D.O., is a family practice physician with Berkshire Osteopathic Health of Berkshire Medical Center.