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Osteopath vs Chiropractor: What's the Difference?

About 1 in 4 medical students in America is studying to earn their doctor of osteopathy degree, which is comparable to a traditional MD degree. The school of medicine educating the next generation of DO’s has a long history of more than 100 years and, in fact, has a few parallels to the school of chiropractic medicine.

The next time you’re back pain flares up, would you go to an osteopath or a chiropractor? Let’s compare Osteopaths vs Chiropractors: we will dig into what these two lines of medicine are, their histories, and where they differ.

What Is Osteopathy?

Osteopathy is a branch of medicine in the US that focuses on full-body holistic health and wellness by emphasizing how the body’s systems are connected and need to work together in order to maintain health.

Similar to an MD, a doctor of osteopathy—known as a DO—attends medical school and is a fully-licensed physician who can specialize in any area, perform surgeries, work in pediatrics, emergency medicine, and more.

History of Osteopathy

Osteopathy was founded in America by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, a physician who didn’t agree with the contemporaneous practices of bloodletting, blistering, treatments with mercury, etc. He believed that most ailments could be treated without the use of drugs; this curiosity, grounded in Still’s anatomical studies, lead to him exploring how medical conditions could be treated with a more natural healing process.

Eventually, Dr. Still would open the first osteopathic medical practice and found the first school of osteopathic medicine; here’s a brief timeline of the development of this medical thought from founding to the present day:

  • 1826: Andrew Taylor Still is born, the third of nine children to Abram and Martha Still
  • 1853: Still becomes a physician, studying closely with his father who was a preacher and physician
  • 1861: Still enlists to serve as a physician during the Civil War for the Union state of Kansas
  • 1892: The first osteopathic medical school, the American School of Osteopathy, opens in Kirksville, Missouri
  • 1897: The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) is founded
  • 1929: Pharmacology and surgical education is added to the osteopathic curriculum
  • 1957: The US Department of Education recognizes the AOA as an accrediting organization for osteopathic medical education
  • 1973: Doctors of Osteopathic medicine are certified in all 50 states and DC
  • 2007: Osteopathic medicine is recognized in 45 countries around the world
  • 2020: Osteopathic accreditation programs merged into one single accreditation program, further affirming osteopathic medicine’s standing in American healthcare education practices

History of Chiropractic Medicine

The word “chiropractic” derives from the Greek words cheir, meaning “hand”, and praktos, meaning “done”, in essence, “done by hand”. While manual wellness treatments have traditions spanning millennia, the particular profession of chiropractic medicine didn’t take shape until the late 1800s in America.

The birth of chiropractic medicine as we know it today is attributed to Daniel David Palmer, who had a background in magnetic healing and phrenology, or the study of diagnosing illnesses by the bumps on a person’s skull. Due to his dubious attitude toward traditional medical practices in his time, Palmer began experimenting on treating ailments through the manipulation of the spine.

Akin to Still and the birth of osteopathic medicine, Palmer believed that the human body was one organism that needed all parts to function properly for good health; Palmer felt that the origin of good health lay in the spine.

Let’s look at a brief timeline of how chiropractic medicine has developed over the last hundred years:

  • 1845: Chiropractic founder Daniel David Palmer is born in Canada and later immigrates to the United States with his family in 1865
  • 1895: While working in an office practicing magnetic healing, the building’s janitor, a man named Harvey Lillard, receives the first chiropractic adjustment; Lillard had been partially deaf for almost 20 years and Palmer noticed one of his vertebrae was out of place. After correcting the position of his vertebrae, Lillard reports that his hearing significantly improved
  • 1897: Palmer opens the first school of chiropractic medicine, named Palmer School of Chiropractic
  • 1913: The first law regarding the licensing of chiropractors is passed and thus makes chiropractic treatment officially legal
  • 1964: The Palmer School of Chiropractic is renamed the Palmer College of Chiropractic and made a non-profit institution, thus greatly expanding its campus and student presence
  • 1993: Congress passes legislation that includes chiropractic medicine in the US Department of Defense healthcare system
  • 2014: The VA launched a chiropractic residency program, the first of its kind in the country, where chiropractors train alongside their medical counterparts at VA medical systems around the country

osteopath vs chiropractor: histories

Osteopath vs Chiropractor: What's the Difference?

Now that we’ve explored how osteopathic medicine shares some parallels with chiropractic medicine over the course of each practice’s history, let’s flesh out a couple of their differences, particularly in terms of training and treatment intentions.

Training and Education

To be clear, both osteopathy and chiropractic medicines require specialized training and education.
Although not medical doctors, chiropractors require at least 7 years of specialized schooling, credentials, and a state license in order to practice and become a Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine. Chiropractors cannot write prescriptions or perform surgeries, unlike those who hold Doctor of Osteopathy degrees; DO school requires several years of medical school and residency experience.

Intended Treatments

Visiting a chiropractor is probably your best method of treatment for alleviating pain caused by a car accident or a fall, especially if the pain is located in your lower back. Same if you find yourself waking up with pain or discomfort after sleeping in the wrong position or if you suffer from chronic back pain, leg pain, or neck pain.

On the other hand, an osteopathic medicine route is best for holistic ailments ranging from infertility, digestive problems, the common cold, and more. Basically, anything you would see a traditional MD for, an osteopath can just as well treat you. Plus, due to their holistic approach to comprehensive medicine, a DO can refer you to a chiropractor when needed.

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February 24, 2022
 - by Antonio Arias, MBA, CHBME
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