What is Osteopathy?

It is easier to describe an Osteopathy session than to describe this complex profession, so that is what most of this page will do. An absorbing account of the history of Osteopathy on both sides of the Atlantic can be found here in the Wikipedia.

Osteopathy was originally a form of alternative medicine developed byAndrew Taylor Still after the American Civil War. Dr Still was a trained doctor (by apprenticeship, as was then common) who grew to doubt the need for much of the crude surgery he saw performed on wounded soldiers during the American Civil War. Broadly, Osteopathy grew out of a belief that bone alignment has a strong effect on the structure and function of the body, including the nervous system. By working on bone alignment through manual manipulation, Osteopaths aim to focus the body's own powerful recuperative abilities rather than fix a problem using surgery and drugs.

Choosing an Osteopath

Choosing a good Osteopath is much like choosing any other health care provider. In particular:

  • Choose someone who communicates well (and sees it as your right that they talk to you about what they're doing!)
  • Ask them if they do Cranial Osteopathy as well as Osteopathic manipulation. In my experience, go to an Osteopath who does both
  • Do you like your Osteopath? As ever, on back-pain-self-help, trust and continually hone your own instincts.

A Less Good Experience of Treatment

Osteopathy In the UK and Europe

In the UK and other European countries Osteopathy is generally regarded as complementary to conventional medicine.

A good starting point for research, or for finding a local Osteopath, is theBritish Osteopathic Association. For other European countries, click About Osteopathy > Links at the British Osteopathic Association website.

Osteopathy in the United States

In the US, Osteopathic Medicine has a complex relationship with mainstream medicine. It grew alongside conventional medicine in the 19th century, and "grew into" medicine in a way that Osteopathy has not done in Europe. An American Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) is much more like a medical practitioner than a European Osteopath, some of them not using much of the traditional OMM (Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine) at all.

See the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) for more information.

A good experience...

"In 1996, out of the blue, I landed flat on my back in bed for two weeks. I hadn't had this kind of back trouble for 17 years. All the strength had gone out of my legs so that I had to crawl to the bathroom. I had constant strong, breath-catching spasms in my lower back.

"The Osteopath spent half an hour taking a detailed history of my back pain, back to earliest childhood. He then spent another 15 minutes with his hands resting softly, moving rhythmically, on my head, neck and lower back. 'There's no point manipulating your spine unless the manipulation is going to hold. I'm partly listening to your spine to find out what it's doing, and partly finding out what its possible response would be to a manipulation,' he said.

"At the end of this time he said he thought the problem was in one of my lower neck vertebrae, C6, and that I had probably had an unstable lower back for many years. (This was true-- I had.)

"He began to rotate my head round and round, showing me the precise movement I was not allowing my neck to make-- it seems I subtly wouldn't let it tilt off to the left of vertical. Then there was a stronger movement that took me by surprise, a mildly uncomfortable, vulnerable feeling, and a slight grinding noise in my neck. Then more quiet listening, moving hands.

"In all the appointments I had, he never made more than one manipulation in each session, and sometimes made none, just listened. Yet I was quickly back on my feet, my lower back has felt better and stronger than it has for years, and the treatment has lasted."

Not so good...

"After a lifting accident, I could hardly move for three days.

"I got an appointment with the local Osteopath who came highly recommended. As it happens, that day she had a new colleague, and it was this man who treated me. There was none of the medical history I would expect from an Osteopath, and little verbal communication. I was there to have something done to me, and he seemed nonplussed when I asked questions about what he was doing.

"He seemed competent enough at getting me out of pain. My memory is of stripping to my underwear, getting cracked and crunched a few times, and feeling a lot better, if sore. The soreness soon wore off.

"What wasn't so good was that I seemed to have to go back and back to have the same treatment, otherwise my lower back quickly got painful again. I worried that the repeated treatments were not doing my joints any good, so eventually I stopped going and looked at other options."