What is Osteopathy – By Dr. Joseph Grasso, DO

Osteopathy was founded by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, M.D., in 1874. Dr. Still was both a physician and a minister. He treated his patients using the medical discipline that was available at the time, and he became increasingly frustrated with the severe toxicity associated with those treatments. He was ultimately propelled to find a different way when three of his sons died of spinal meningitis, as he was helpless and could not offer them any treatment.

He began to experiment and found his way back into the anatomy lab. He put his hands to work learning all he could about the body and its function. This, in addition to his medical knowledge, combined to create a unique hands-on discipline that has grown into one of today’s most efficient ways of diagnosing and treating patients. Dr. Still began treating all types of abnormalities using his hands, such as Diphtheria, Cholera, Irritable and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Musculoskeletal problems, Viruses, and Bacterial Diseases, to name a few. He was exceedingly successful treating them, especially at a time when antibiotics were not yet discovered and medical treatments were archaic.

Osteopathy has grown significantly to this day, in which there are 20 Osteopathic Medical Schools in the United States and several abroad, including Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Canada. Only in the United States are D.O.’s – or Doctors of Osteopathy – given the rights to practice medicine as are the M.D.’s and Dentists. In fact, Osteopathy is a full medical discipline that teaches its students medicine in addition to a unique hands-on discipline. It is this unique hands-on discipline that is at the center of Traditional Osteopathy.

Commonly, you will see mentioned a certain discipline that came from one of Dr. Still’s students, William Garner Sutherland, called “Cranial Osteopathy” or “Osteopathy in the Cranial Field”. Dr. Sutherland’s work on the Cranial concept evolved into a treatment focused on the whole patient, and it was an integral evolution to Dr Still’s gift to us. More about this later.

Osteopathy, in general, was given its name by Dr. Still as a means to treat patients holistically, meaning looking at all aspects of health: mind, body, and spirit. It is a medical discipline that centers on finding the cause of problems rather than treating symptoms.

The standard Allopathic (M.D.) paradigm is focused on symptoms and treating those symptoms in order to eradicate them. The same paradigm is seen in the Dental field (D.D.S. or D.M.D.) in which the dentist focuses on the problem rather than what is in the background that is causing the problem.

The Traditional Osteopath understands that the body has an innate ability to heal itself. He or she works to understand, both didactically and perceptually, how the body is functioning not only in its normal state, but also in its diseased state, in order to synchronize with health and facilitate the patient to heal. This ability to synchronize is not primarily on the disease, but rather on how the person is functioning in relationship to it.

The presence of disease in a person’s life can be just as important as health, as the disease process may be acting as a fulcrum to help the patient evolve. This is a very important concept, as the way in which a physician approaches a patient can have a huge impact on the outcome of their care. This is why we must understand that Osteopathy gains its roots from medicine and looks to integrate all the medical disciplines to come together and focus on health rather than disease. It was meant to be an alternative discipline giving the physician the licensure to practice medicine but at the same time integrate the traditional principles of holistic care utilizing a hands-on approach. This includes the integration and application of nutrition, perceptual training, lifestyle and exercise regimens, and the integration of other disciplines to help our patients.

The majority of D.O.’s in the United States practice no differently than the M.D.’s and do not employ the Traditional aspects of Osteopathy as given to us by A.T. Still. Thus, the unique hands-on discipline is not integrated in their practices.

Allopathic Physicians and Dentists are the other medical disciplines in the United States that are routinely taught in the Osteopathic concepts. Their education is a fundamental aspect to practicing Traditional Osteopathy, as it is necessary in order to come to its understanding. In addition, they are also presented with patients that require holistic treatment and must understand that the body acts as a unit and cannot be separated into parts. Problems in the mouth can have an adverse affect on the rest of the patient, thereby causing and contributing to several disease processes.

Similarly, Allopaths whose medical training is similar to Osteopaths – except for the hands-on training that is not a part of their curriculum – need to treat the patient the same way; as a whole. Certainly, a specialist may be needed to diagnose and even treat a patient, and surgery may be indicated, but we must never disregard what is happening in the whole. Even if the physician does not employ hands-on treatment, he or she can still practice holistically. More articles will be written in the future regarding this subject to help us all to understand the importance of the whole and how we work with it.

Cranial Osteopathy

Cranial Osteopathy, as stated above, was defined by Dr. William Garner Sutherland. It is the primary method that I utilize in my practice. I refer to it as “Traditional Osteopathy” as it is a treatment focused on the whole patient, not just the head, and is utilized to integrate all aspects of health, disease, and prevention in my practice.

Dr. Sutherland first came into contact with the cranial concept in 1898 at the age of 25 and first introduced it to his colleagues 31 years later in 1929.


Osteopathy is a medical science given its name by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still. It was designed as a holistic science focused on finding the cause of disease and working with disease in relationship to health. Health, in any diseased state, is always present, and one can be trained to work with it no matter the condition. The hand placements are configured in a very gentle way and are taught to listen rather than perform.

An understanding of Anatomy. Physiology, Embryology and Clinical Medicine is a prerequisite to understanding its applications. It is not considered a technique but rather a simple approach to a patient based on health. Its application is not automatic and, in fact, two people with a similar diagnosis and similar symptoms will invariably be approached differently.

A patient receiving this type of treatment is often very surprised, as it does not appear that the physician is doing much, but this could not be further from the truth. Most patients will fall asleep and wake up feeling different. It does not have any association to any New Age terminology and should not be confused with any other discipline. Future articles will be written focused on certain conditions and how we approach them. Hopefully, this article as well as others, will not only help to open the door to a better understanding of Osteopathy, but how we need to work with the whole, and treating disease from the place of health.