Osteopathic medicine has distinct definitions and implications depending on whether the discipline is practiced in the United States or in Europe and Commonwealth countries. Regardless of location, however, the practice incorporates the concept of the "healing touch." Osteopathy treatments include gentle pressure on soft tissues, muscle resistance, and cranial massage, among others. Osteopathic medicine works on the theory that the body physically changes to adapt to adverse influences, such as trauma and illness; osteopathy treatments involve physically adjusting muscles and joints in an attempt to restore them to normal. Osteopathic medicine is commonly recognized as complementary, not primary or conventional, medicine.
In the United States, osteopathic doctors obtain DOs, as opposed to MDs, but are licensed medical doctors. England, Australia, and New Zealand have specialized programs for osteopathic training and licensing, although national health coverage of their treatments varies. Canadian training follows those of England and Commonwealth countries. Both American and Canadian DOs may prescribe medicine. There is no one perfect definition of Osteopathic medicine, so the practice and treatment are not one finite set. There are, however, some fundamental osteopathy treatment families and practices.
Osteopathy treatments, or osteopathic manipulation techniques, can include cranial osteopathy, or gentle pressure aimed at manipulating the bones of the skull. Based on cranial osteopathy, but less mainstream, craniosacral osteopathy seeks to manipulate the membrane system connected to those bones, the brain, and the spinal cord — in short, the central nervous system structures. Cranial osteopathy is part of osteopathic medical training; craniosacral osteopathy is usually not. In either case, the DO applies diagnostic techniques that may or may not involve direct touch, and then treats with gentle touch: manipulation or pressure.
Other osteopathy treatments are the soft-tissue technique, which employs stretching, pressure, and traction along the muscles surrounding the spine; myofascial release, stretching and massaging connective tissue; and the lymphatic technique, manual pressure on the patient's chest at the end of exhalantion, thought to aid the respiratory system in moving lymphatic fluids. To restore motion, the thrust technique and muscle energy technique use fast but low-pressure force or patient-directed moving poses, respectively.
Like chiropractic treatments, osteopathy treatments have a spectrum of philosophies. Some believe the treatments can accomplish near-miraculous results, such as curing cancer. Around the middle of the spectrum, osteopathic medicine can be used to treat conditions that might seem unrelated to muscle and joint alignment, such as asthma and digestive disorders, as well as pinched nerves, stiff joints, and joint pain. There are also some who claim the field is little more than quackery. Naysayers tend to focus their arguments around the cranial and craniosacral osteopathy areas, with craniosacral osteopathy the subject of widespread skepticism, including among many osteopathic physicians.