Osteopathic Manual Therapy
Osteopathy is a gentle manual therapy aiming to support to the body’s own natural healing abilities. Evidence supports its use in the treatment of many physical conditions, including joint pain, low back pain, sciatica, minor injuries, some types of neck pain and headache. Osteopathy has also been found to help with cramp, digestive problems, circulatory problems, osteoarthritic and rheumatic pain, nerve pain, and fibromyalgia. In today’s fast-paced world, few people are free from the effects of stress. Research suggests that osteopathic treatment can be an effective way to relieve tension and overcome the inability to relax.
Osteopathy was developed in the 19th century by American frontiersman physician, farmer, and abolitionist Andrew Taylor Still. After losing 3 children to spinal meningitis, Still forswore the drug-dependent medical practices of his time. He then applied himself, through a decade of hardship and poverty, to the development of a new medical approach founded on an exhaustive study of human anatomy, devising precise anatomical manipulations to counteract disease processes. In 1874, he publicly announced the name and the philosophy of his new approach: osteopathy. In 1892, in Kirsville, Missouri, Still founded the American School of Osteopathy (now A.T. Still University). In the 3 subsequent decades, graduates of Still’s school spread across the U.S., to Canada, Britain, and beyond.
Osteopathy is based on Still’s observation that the form of every anatomical structure corresponds exactly to its physiological function. From this, he deduced that changes to the structure—whether they be traumatic, postural, or otherwise—entail corresponding changes to function. Perhaps the most fundamental factor here is movement. Whenever abnormal restrictions reduce the body’s (i.e. the structure’s) ability to move, these restrictions negatively affect the body’s ability to function. Reduced function in one area means that other areas must modify their function, compensating to keep up with the demands of everyday life. When the surrounding parts can no longer sustain these compensations, tissue damage results, leading to pain and other symptoms. Thus, in osteopathic philosophy, many “diseases” are seen not as the cause of symptoms but as the effects of reduced mobility: for many osteopaths, movement dysfunctions are considered the root cause of disease.
This perspective is based on the argument that movement restrictions, associated with stiffness and soft tissue changes (e.g. “knots” in muscle), reduce circulation to and from the affected area. When this happens, the blood can no longer deliver enough of the oxygen and nutrients essential for cellular activity, and the lymph vessels are limited in how much they can flush waste products and inflammatory chemicals from the space between the cells: reduced circulation deprives the cell of what it needs and bathes it in what it no longer needs. The resulting deficiency and stagnation renders the affected tissues less able to function and to maintain themselves, while also reducing the immune system’s ability to protect against disease. As a result, the tissues become fertile terrain for germs and other disease agents to take hold.
What Does Osteopathy Feel Like?
Following Osteopathic philosophy, treatment aims to: locate and eliminate movement dysfunctions and their associated compensations; improve arterial and venous circulation, lymphatic drainage, and cerebro-spinal fluid flow; and allow the body’s self-healing mechanism to function freely. To this end, manual osteopaths apply gentle, hands on techniques to restore mobility to stuck tissues and structures. Depending on the techniques being used, treatment may look and feel quite different from one session to another. Sometimes, large, rhythmic circular movements known as “articulations” form the bulk of the treatment. This might feel like very gentle stretching, is typically quite relaxing, and works to loosen up joints while also balancing the nervous system. “Muscle energy” techniques involve resisted muscular contraction, followed by relaxation and progressive stretching. “Functional” techniques involve the application of sustained, gentle pressure applied to soft tissues or on either side of the joint, holding the tissues in a fixed position until they relax. Some patients immediately feel their tissues releasing, while others may not feel much change at all until after the treatment. In another key approach, “cranial” techniques (from which cranio-sacral therapy was developed), is often very subtle, relying on “listening” to strains, tensions, and restrictions held in the tissues and supporting the body towards their resolution.
What Can I Expect from my First Visit?
A typical first session begins with an in-depth conversation about the patient’s reasons for seeking treatment, background medical history (including any current conditions and medications), lifestyle, diet, sleep, and general health. Subsequently, a physical examination is conducted to determine the cause of the complaint. For this stage, patients may choose at their own discretion to undress to their underwear, allowing a clearer assessment of the spine and other anatomical structures. Active and passive movement of the affected areas, along with palpation of involved tissues, is typically used to determine the specific areas of restriction responsible for the patient’s complaint. From this point, a discussion follows about the possible treatment options. Based on the patient’s needs and preferences, Treatment plans are devised for each specific case. While most treatments involve a blend of different technique types, patients with definite preferences are welcome to request whatever approach suits them best.