Mind, Body, Spirit: Osteopathic Medicine Is About A Lot More Than Bones

Sep 3, 2019

Duquesne University is planning to admit its first class of osteopathic medical students in the fall of 2023. The field is growing; according to the American Osteopathic Association, about one in four medical students attends an osteopathic school instead of a traditional, allopathic medical school.

"This major leap forward for Duquesne, Pittsburgh and our region is a bold move that recognizes how health care requires new kinds of practitioners," said Duquesne President Ken Gormley in a press release when the move was announced last month.

But many Pittsburghers have, at best, a vague understanding of the difference between allopathic and osteopathic medicine.

“Osteo, well that means bones,” said Jeffrey Thomas of Homestead, walking near UPMC’s Presbyterian hospital in Oakland last week. “Pathic, I don’t know what that means.”

Joyce Holl, an administrator in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Medicine outside enjoying the sunny weather on her lunch break, struggled to come up with the right words.

“It’s more home remedy,” she said. “It’s more natural.”

Erin Corrigan, a registered nurse at UPMC, said it’s her understanding that osteopathic physicians are supposed to be more hands-on and will seek out other treatments beyond medication.

“But in my practice, and my experience when I’ve worked with doctors in ICU, they’re no different than an M.D.,” she said.

The field of osteopathic medicine formally began in 1892, when Andrew Taylor Still founded its first institution of higher education in northeast Missouri. Dr. Amy Maddelana, an osteopathic pediatrician with Kids Plus Pediatrics in Greenfield, attended that school and said Still’s beliefs diverged radically from accepted medical practice of the time.

“It mostly was poisonous toxic substances that were introduced to the body; so arsenic was used, leaches,” Maddelana said. “There wasn't a lot known then about what the basis of diseases were. A.T. Still really wanted to find an alternative to that.”

Still preached that the structure and function of the body were intricately linked, and that by understanding and manipulating the musculoskeletal system, one could encourage the body’s own natural healing tendencies. Still developed methods of stretching and gentle pressure applied to muscles, bones, joints and fascia – now known as osteopathic manipulative treatment – that he believed could diagnose, prevent and heal disease.

At first, traditional M.D.s thought he was a quack, said Maddelana.

“In the beginning it was really a very wide distance between allopathic medicine and osteopathic medicine,” she said. “Over the years it's really grown together so that eventually osteopathic physicians became license to practice medicine in our country the same way that M.D.s are.”

Not only has osteopathic medicine become more closely aligned with allopathic medicine, said Maddelana, but allopathic practitioners have begun to embrace the tenets of osteopathic medicine, like disease prevention and treating not just the disease itself but the patient as a whole.

“That includes mind, spirit [and] body,” she said. “We're not just asking about physical symptoms but the whole person. Are you exercising? How is your nutrition? Are you getting outside? We're not just looking at why does your head hurt. What is surrounding that and how can we treat your whole self?”