I've been asked this question more times than I can count. The most common response is, "something to do with bones?" Whilst you wouldn't technically be wrong, osteopathy is much broader than that.
Osteopathy is a form of manual therapy that aims to find the root cause of why the body has dysfunction or is in discomfort, and was founded by Andrew Taylor Still in the USA in the late 19th century. Still was a physician and surgeon, who found that the medical practices of the time often did more harm than good, with medication often being used ineffectively. After losing his wife and three of his children to spinal meningitis, Still devoted the next thirty years of his life to the human body and studying alternative therapies that could be used to complement and in some cases replace medical practices that were being used at the time. One of the most important concepts was, when possible, we should avoid the use of drugs when treating the body.
The Principles of Osteopathy
During his time forming osteopathy, Still came upon these three founding principles:
Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated
If for some reason the structure of a piece of anatomy is compromised, this will mean that it does not function as well it is meant to. This can then lead to pain and/or disease, or, dysfunction. If you look at it the other way around, if one finds dysfunction somewhere, then you must find the structure that is compromised in order to help it function properly, which in turn will help alleviate the pain and/or disease.
The body is a unit, with each system inseparable from the next
This is the idea that all structures in the body are inseparable from one another, from the tiniest cells, to our muscles and bones. It's also the concept that one must consider the social, biological and psychological interactions of a patient during assessment. This is called the biopsychosocial model, and is a similar idea to cells and muscles being connected, in that if we have psychological stresses in our life, than they may manifest in our body or social habits. By making sure all aspects are as well maintained as possible, it gives the body the best chance of maintaining optimum health.
The body has its own capacity to heal
You may not be aware of it, but our body is constantly repairing, healing, and fighting off disease. The bodies ability to combat these day to day stressors are reduced when parts of the unit are compromised. The role of the osteopath is to find out where the body is compromised, and help put the body back into equilibrium in order to help it heal itself.
What conditions do osteopaths treat?
This is a slightly more complicated topic. Technically, traditional osteopaths do not treat "conditions" in the literal sense, but rather the body, as we believe the body has the ability to heal itself. For example, if a patient has arthritis, an osteopath does not treat the arthritis, but instead the associated joints, muscles, bones and ligaments, helping them get back into as greater balance as possible, so that the body is in the best position to be able to heal itself. It's because of this concept, that osteopaths are able to help in a wide range of ailments. However most osteopaths will work closely with other healthcare professionals, especially if they become aware of a condition that falls outside the scope of their expertise.
Why and/or when should I see an osteopath?
Osteopaths are primary healthcare practitioners. This means they can be the first port of call for when you are feeling ill, or have injured yourself. The osteopath can help form a diagnosis and will often give you treatment themselves, helping you on your road to recovery. However, in some instances, they may spot something that requires further investigation and refer you on to your GP for further examination. The reasons for this can vary, but it may be that they think you require imaging, blood tests or perhaps medication.
Some people choose to see an osteopath once a month, or whenever they can afford to, even when not in discomfort. This can is to help keep the body in balance and in optimum health, so that minor dysfunctions can be spotted before they become more serious.
What's the difference between a chiropractor, a physiotherapist and an osteopath?
This is another question I get asked quite frequently. The truth to this is that as time has gone by, these three manual therapies have become intertwined, and the difference between each is decreasing every day.
Traditionally, the difference between the professions would be in their founding principles. Osteopaths, as mentioned above, believe that the body is a unit, and that in order to help the body heal itself, one must make sure that the unit is functioning as optimally as possible. They believe that in order to help the body function as well as possible, you must find the root cause of the dysfunction, which may originate from a different area of the body that is experiencing pain.
Chiropractic medicine has many more principles, but at its core there is a belief that forces applied to the body can cause dysfunction, as well as the belief that the bodies ability to communicate with itself comes from the spine, and is often why there is such an emphasis on spinal manipulation, also known as high velocity thrusts (or HVTs).
Physiotherapy is perhaps the most well known. Whilst physiotherapists will often perform treatments, especially when seen privately, often a physiotherapist will focus on rehabilitation, giving you a range of exercises that you can go away and do on your own.
These examples are simplified, and there is often debate on the definition of each profession, even from those within. A lot of osteopaths, chiropractors and physiotherapists are now multi-disciplined, training in more than one profession and combining their knowledge and techniques from each discipline.
What Can I Expect From An Osteopathic Session?
For those that have never been to an osteopath, there are a few things to expect. The first session is usually a little bit longer, where the osteopath will take a case history, asking various questions from your profession, to any conditions you may have, medications and perhaps most importantly why you have come for a treatment.
Typically, your osteopath will then ask you to dress down into some suitable clothing. As osteopathy is a manual therapy, like massage, it works best when the therapist has contact with skin. However, if you are uncomfortable with this, they are more than capable to work through your clothing. Most osteopaths will ask you to bring some shorts with you, and if you're a woman, a training bra or vest.
You should not be too surprised, especially during a first treatment, if an osteopath asks you to dress down, even if you have come in for an issue with your knee or ankle. This is because they need to develop a clear picture of your body, looking at the curves of your spine, the alignment of your pelvis, and other factors to see why the knee or ankle might be in discomfort. Always feel free to ask questions along the way. We're more than happy to explain what we think the issue may be, and why it might be arising.
Treatments themselves involve manual contact, using a variety of techniques such as soft tissue, articulations and high velocity thrusts (HVTs). Your osteopath will also usually give you a range of exercises, as well as advice regarding your daily life style.