One doctor doesn’t make osteopathy quackery

An article in the Los Angeles Times titled “Dr. Larry Nassar was not a doctor”,  written by Virginia Heffernan, bashes osteopathic medicine just as much as it bashes Nassar. But is osteopathic medicine really quackery or is Nassar just a really bad man?

Just this past month Nassar was convicted for the sexual assaults of 156 women. Nassar graduated from Michigan State University in 1993 with a doctorate in osteopathic medicine. But what is osteopathic medicine? And why would Nassar, or anyone protecting Nassar, make the claim that his sexual assaults were “medical treatments”?

According to Heffernan, osteopathic medicine focuses on the joints, muscles and spine. Historically, though, osteopathy — its original name — was closely associated with a set of esoteric massage styles that some researchers now consider ineffective or worse. For its part, MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine still teaches these unusual manipulations — a special “benefit” unique to osteopathic medicine — describing them as a form of “hands-on diagnosis and treatment”. 

Heffernan continues, “Modern osteopathic medicine uses none of these techniques to treat infections — or anything else.”

According to Osteopathic Medicine by Annette O’Connor PhD, osteopathy is a medical philosophy that treats disease in the context of the whole person, taking into consideration the functions and interrelationships of all body systems as well as such factors as nutrition, environment and psychology. 

“….Among its tenets are that the various body systems are joined through the nervous, endocrine, and circulatory systems and that if one region of the body is diseased, the entire body is diseased….

“…. The concept of health-versus-disease is central to the philosophy of osteopathic medicine. The osteopathic physician is not as concerned with the treatment of the disease as with the cause of the disease and the methods that can be used to prevent its continuation or recurrence. The concept of health implies that all components of the body are functioning as a unit and that all are contributing to the maintenance of homeostasis…”

Nowhere in this academic article did I read anything which discussed the use of intravaginal manipulation as a treatment for disease or even as a method of disease prevention. Further, the word treatment here might be confusing for some people. Heffernan seems to be using the word treatment in the sense that most people are probably familiar with because of more common medical practice.

Medical Doctors typically “treat” symptoms with medicine, whereas osteopathic doctors typically “treat” the patient as a whole in order to reverse or prevent a disease. While it is true that osteopathic medicine does not use manipulative treatments to treat infections in the common practice sense, the field claims to treat diseases in a holistic sense by trying to restore the patient’s body to homeostasis. Osteopathy often intentionally tries to avoid the use of medicine opting for nutritional or habitual changes instead.

One thing should definitely be clear, insofar as intravaginal manipulation is ever an acceptable medical treatment at any time in the world of osteopathy, it is never acceptable if it is performed on the patient without their informed consent or without legitimate justification for its use. It should be crystal clear then that Nassar is guilty of sexual assault on all 156 women. Nassar failed to inform and acquire informed consent from those 156 women whom he claims to have “medically treated.” But it is not so clear to me that the field of osteopathy altogether is quackery.

Heffernan stated, “Just last year, the American Osteopathic Assn. released a statement to MLive.com, the Michigan news service, saying that intravaginal manipulations are indeed an approved, if rare, osteopathic treatment for pelvic pain. No need to fact-check that. Grabbing a young woman inside the vagina is not a first-line or thousandth-line treatment for anything. The victims knew this intuitively, but over and over they were told to doubt their perceptions, suppress common sense in favor of mystifying quackery and accept their unerring reflex to recoil from Nassar’s probes as their own failure.”

It makes sense that Heffernan, or anyone else for that matter, would become emotionally wrapped up in the case and conviction of Nassar. Attacking the field of osteopathy because of Nassar would be like attacking all police officers for one unjust police killing, all caucasian people for one caucasian man’s hate against another race, or all African Americans for one crime committed by a single African American.

We do not have any reason to defend Nassar because of his background in osteopathy, but we also do not have any reason to destroy osteopathy just because of Nassar. If we should take anything away from Nassar’s conviction it should be that osteopathic medicine does not give you the right to sexaully assault women, but for women or men who find osteopathic medicine as effective for maintaining their good health the opportunity to utilize it should not be taken from them.

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