By Chere Di Boscio
Despite its impressive advances, modern medicine can’t always fully address certain aspects of illness. From chronic pain to period pain, sometimes pharmaceutical medicine either doesn’t solve the problem at all, or only covers up the symptoms whilst not addressing the core issues. In such cases, it’s understandable to turn elsewhere – and osteopathy is another weapon in the arsenal to help us maintain optimal health and well being.
Osteopaths may not be regarded as highly as doctors, but osteopathy isn’t some airy-fairy form of spiritual healing; it actually follows strict scientific and medical principles in its approach to evaluation and treatment of the body, and a fundamental osteopathic education covers anatomy, physiology, neurology, neuroscience and pathology as well as sociology and psychology.
But what exactly can osteopathy do, and how does it work? If you have joint, muscle or pain problems, here’s why you may need an osteopath.
The field of osteopathy has long, deep roots. In the West, it was founded in 1874 by Andrew Taylor Still, an American Midwestern physician and surgeon. Whilst serving in US Civil War, he observed that more people were dying from diseases than from the war itself. This observation, coupled with enduring the loss of his wife and four of his children (one adopted) to spinal meningitis, inspired him to seek alternative healing methods. In his opinion, contemporary conventional medical practices failed to explain disease etiology and provide adequate treatment. Taylor Still was one of the first proponents of preventive medicine, and one of the first to promote the notion of treating the underlying causes of diseases and not just the symptoms.
A highly religious man, Taylor Still believed that God created “the perfect machine of nature” which ran smoothest with unobstructed arterial and venous circulation. Unsurprisingly, one of the goals of osteopathic treatment is to “free up” the body’s fluid circulation to enable the body to heal itself.
Shortly after Still died in 1917, osteopathy came across the ocean to the UK. One of Still’s students, John Martin Littlejohn, founded the British School of Osteopathy, in London. (Yet it wasn’t until 1993 that the field was formally recognized, with Parliament passing the Osteopaths Act).
In 1953, Still’s principles were developed into a practical set of guidelines, termed “The Osteopathic Concept,” and published by a committee of American Osteopaths. Today, osteopathic therapy is based on an understanding of these three principles:
- The body is a unit—a holistic approach is taken through osteopathy, such that all the body’s systems (“body, mind and spirit”) are integrated and coordinated in all functions via the circulatory and neuro-endocrine systems
- The body possesses self-regulatory mechanisms—these mechanisms include self-healing and health-maintenance capabilities
- Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated—if one is compromised, then likely both are compromised
I spoke to osteopath Gina John from the Osprey Clinic in London to see how she evaluates a patient’s symptoms and decides on an appropriate treatment plan. “I first ask what the patient is here to see me for. I then consider the interactions and homeostatic mechanisms of their body, and evaluate which adjustments would suit each patient as far as possible. My treatments are done through manual therapy with the purpose of allowing the body to fully utilize its own natural healing powers,” she explained.
She continues: “It’s important for me to consider a patient’s physical, mental and emotional state, as well as the patient’s ability to cope with any treatment I propose. Often, my patients come to me because they’ve failed to get the help they seek from other practitioners or from taking drugs, so it’s important that I really listen to the patient and fully explore the nature of their problem. That’s why the first consultation with me normally runs for an hour. At the end of the consultation, I discuss all options with the patient, who may decide not to go ahead with any of the treatment options I suggest.”
Most of Gina’s patients come to her for chronic pain, sports injuries, or spinal problems. She works in conjunction with surgeons, but prefers to first implement more holistic treatments:
“The methods I use may include joint massage, stretching and joint clicking or manipulation (also called High Velocity Low Amplitude Thrust, or HVLAT), and are meant to restore what is considered the normal condition. It’s important to note that force is not necessary in treatment, since small adjustments will encourage the body to resume its natural healing process and, eventually, normal joint function,” she says.
Who Is It Good For?
Osteopathy is particularly helpful for dancers, gymnasts, athletes, and people with hypermobility syndromes they acquired from excessive stretching or unusual movements. Johns says she is seeing more and more people come to her who have injured themselves through yoga movements, which she says are not as benign as we may think – most yoga postures today, she tells me, are ‘Western inventions’ that stray from the Indian originals, and can overextend and tear muscles and ligaments. For that reason, she urges her clients to do Pilates rather than modern yoga.
No matter what the patient’s issue, Gina tells me that the nature of the problem must be assessed in a holistic manner to determine its true origin. “For example, shoulder problems—especially in hypermobile patients—may be associated with structural problems in the spine, or with weakness in core stability and an overdependence on superficial muscle groups. Just treating one joint or one muscle group where pain is experienced doesn’t usually resolve the problem. ”
Don’t think that osteopathy is only useful for treating joint and muscle problems, though: as this video below shows, it can even be used to help with eyesight issues.
Some of those treatment options may include other kinds of more modern medicine. Dysfunction may be assessed by clinical orthopaedic tests, scans and X-rays in the same ways a surgeon would assess patients. Osteopaths also send patients for blood tests to consider underlying pathologies and inflammation. Another important osteopathic diagnostic tool is clinical examination through a technique called palpation. Used to assess “tissue states,” palpation involves applying gentle pressure with the hands to identify inflammation, muscle hypertonicity and restricted joints.
In addition to manual therapy, many osteopaths now incorporate ultrasound, acupuncture, stretching and weight bearing exercises and other complementary therapies into their practice. The treatments selected and applied will vary from patient to patient.
For example, the aforementioned HVLAT technique is a powerful manipulative therapy, similar to chiropractic techniques, and involves the manipulation of a joint in the spine or limbs. It’s not an appropriate treatment for every patient – after receiving HVLAT, patients in acute pain may experience extreme soreness, for example, and this may delay the body’s natural healing processes. Also, those with certain medical conditions, including osteoporosis and women at different stages of pregnancy, can’t be given HVLAT.
My Own Experience
After running a marathon, my knee was in constant pain. I visited an osteopath to sort that out, and after an initial consultation, she promised that she could massage the IT band, a muscle along the side of my leg which was super tight as a result of the marathon, and which was pulling on my knee as a result. That sounded fun and promising, so I went willingly onto her massage table, expecting to have a deep tissue type of experience. Boy, was I wrong – this ‘massage’ hurt so much, it was all I could do from screaming in pain. The movements were tiny, but highly focused. That IT band was as tight as wire and it took a lot of painful manipulation to loosen it up – but she did it! It took three sessions before I felt 100% ready to run again though.
I visited another osteopath at Vilalara in Portugal. Before he even touched my body, he asked me: ‘How long have you been asthmatic?”. I was floored. Apparently, he could tell I had breathing difficulties because of the way my back hunched over a bit and my ribcage stuck out. My waist had shortened as a result. He gave me some exercises to do at home that involved stretching the space between my ribcage and hipbones, and also suggested some postural exercises. When I first did these, they hurt my back, as though I’d just done some weight lifting or something. But after 2 weeks of doing them each day, I honestly did feel they made a difference to my posture. Sadly, laziness set in and I stopped doing these as frequently, and my body reverted to what it was. But this year, I resolve to improve my posture, which will improve my breathing.
Getting sick and experiencing pain is no fun. If you find yourself with chronic pain, a nagging sports injury, back problems or impeded movement, here are many potential treatments that can help, but to tackle certain illness by curing their underlying causes, you may want to also consider osteopathy.
Images: Osprey Clinic