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What is Osteopathy: An Overview

Definition & Overview

Osteopathy is a branch of medicine that specialises in the treatment of medical disorders by massaging or manipulating the bones, joints, and muscles. It is based on the belief that the bones, muscles, ligaments, and connective tissues of the body should work smoothly together for a person to have good health. Although it only involves the musculoskeletal system, treatments also affect the nervous, circulatory, and lymphatic systems.

The branch of osteopathy began in the late 1800s. It was developed by a physician who wanted to promote the body’s ability to heal itself. It recognises the impact that lifestyle and habits have on the body. In general, the treatment works by removing any barriers to good health and well-being.

Osteopathy is considered as a type of complementary alternative medicine (CAM). It is one of only two CAM fields that are regulated by law in most countries; the other one is chiropractic. The techniques used in osteopathy are vastly different from those used in conventional medicine. These techniques are also not always supported by scientific evidence. Osteopathy aims to treat various health problems without the use of drugs or surgery. Aside from being drug-free, it is also completely non-invasive.

The goals of osteopathic treatment are:

  • To relieve muscle tension
  • To increase joint mobility
  • To improve blood circulation
  • To stimulate proper healing


To achieve these goals, osteopaths use a combination of massage, stretching, and breathing exercises. The specific techniques they use include:

  • Soft tissue manipulation – This is used to evaluate the condition of tissues and improve the circulation of fluids in the body. It prevents fluid retention and boosts the immune system.
  • Osteopathic articular technique – This helps reduce muscle spasms and improve joint mobility. It is effective in easing neurological irritation around a joint and reduces pain and discomfort in the body.
  • Cranial osteopathy – This is the gentlest osteopathic technique but also the most difficult for osteopaths to master. It is used to treat spine and sacrum problems. It works by restoring the body’s inherent biorhythm.
  • Visceral manipulation – This can treat pain and improve the pliability of the body’s organs and viscera. It works by gently moving the organs and the fascia around them. At most, patients will feel a gentle pressure during the treatment. This therapy is very effective and can help organs function more effectively.


Despite using unique techniques, there is scientific evidence to support that osteopathy is effective in treating problems related to the musculoskeletal system. It can treat most cases of chronic pain that affect various parts of the body.

However, some osteopaths claim that several other ailments that people experience are caused by some problems with the bones, joints, and muscles. As such, they also offer to treat problems that seem unrelated to the musculoskeletal system. Some examples include:

  • Recurrent headaches
  • Migraines
  • Painful periods
  • Digestive disorders
  • Depression
  • Colic (in infants)
  • Asthma
  • Glue ear
  • Temporomandibular disorders
  • Scoliosis


There is currently no scientific evidence to support such claims.

Osteopathy is not without risks. Although it rarely occurs, there is a risk that the artery wall will get torn during spinal manipulation in the neck area. This may lead to a stroke, permanent disability, or even death. Because of this, not all patients are good candidates for osteopathy. These include those who suffer from the following:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Bone fracture
  • Arthritis
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Acute inflammatory conditions
  • Cancer
  • Multiple sclerosis


It is also not recommended for patients who are:

  • Using blood-thinning medications for an existing medical condition
  • Undergoing radiation therapy
  • Pregnant

When Should You See an Osteopath?

Patients should see an osteopath if:

  • They suffer from musculoskeletal problems.
  • They experience chronic pain or movement problems in specific parts of the body.
  • They are recovering from hip, knee, or other limb-related operations.


These problems may cause the following symptoms:

  • Low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Arthritis
  • Pelvic issues
  • Hip pain
  • Leg pain
  • Posture problem


These symptoms may be caused or aggravated by patients’ work, sports, habits, or pregnancy. They can also feel worse during sleep, causing sleep disturbances and restless nights.

Aside from general aches and pains, osteopaths can also treat specific conditions, such as:

  • Tennis elbow
  • Sciatica
  • Repetitive strain injury
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome


During a visit to an osteopath, patients are asked to explain their symptoms. The osteopath will then carry out a physical examination using hands to find weak and tender areas in the body.

The osteopath will then try to detect any sources of restriction and strain in the body and discuss what osteopathy can do for the patient. An individualised treatment plan will also be prepared. For example, most patients who experience lower back pain are asked to attend 9 sessions spread out over 12 weeks. Simpler problems, however, can be treated in 3 to 4 sessions.

After the initial consultation, the patient will be scheduled for a treatment session. The session is not painful, but it is normal for the patient to experience some soreness or stiffness during the first few days after the treatment. If the massage or stretching becomes painful, the patient should tell the osteopath right away. The initial session can last up to an hour or even longer, but succeeding treatments only last for around 30 to 40 minutes.

Osteopathic therapy works best when accompanied by lifestyle changes and workplace ergonomics. Although osteopathy is not preventative by nature, it encourages good lifestyle habits and ergonomic changes to prevent various health problems and injuries.

If patients’ condition requires medical treatment, osteopaths may refer them to a general physician or ask patients to undergo medical tests and imaging scans.

References:

  • Licciardone JC, Cardarelli R. “Osteopathic medicine and primary care: a new journal for changing times.” Osteopathic medicine and primary care. 2007; 1:1. https://om-pc.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1750-4732-1-1

  • Walker BF. “The journal of the chiropractic and osteopathic college of Australasia.” Australas Chiropr Osteopathy. 1998 Mar; 7(1): 35-38. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2050635/