‘What Is Osteopathy? The mechanical principles on which osteopathy are based are as old as the universe. (Dr Andrew Taylor Still, 1874)

Osteopathy is an established system of complete medical practice, diagnosis and treatment, as recognised by the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa and the British Medical Association. It is a ‘hands-on therapy (no surgery, medication, tablets or gimmicks) that restores the normal structure of the musculoskeletal system, which in turn improves the function of the nervous, circulatory and immune systems and allows faster healing, reducing pain, congestion and restriction within the body. A diagnosis including an explanation of why dysfunction has occurred will always be made prior to treatment. Hands-on treatment ranges from very subtle techniques used for babies through to more robust techniques used for athletes. Most patients report receiving complete relief in two to three consultations.

Dr Andrew Taylor Still, an American medical doctor, surgeon, and architect founded osteopathy in 1874. In the Western world, Dr Still is widely considered the first physician to treat each patient as a whole, while searching for the cause of dysfunction rather than treating the symptoms.

Osteopathy is not the same as chiropractic or physiotherapy. Osteopaths take into account not only physical symptoms, but also the patients lifestyle and attitudes, as well as his or her overall health, effectively treating the patient as a whole.

The osteopath considers physical, environmental and stress factors simultaneously, whereas the general medical practitioner would usually treat these factors individually and in isolation from each other.

‘HANDS-ON’ MANUAL THERAPY

Osteopathy is a manual therapy that doesn’t simply look at presenting symptoms. Osteopaths believe that symptoms often hide the underlying cause of disease.

By paying attention to the significance of any alteration in structure or function (the joints, muscles, ligaments, bones and connective tissue), an osteopath is able to interpret whole patterns of aches, pains and general health problems.

Alteration in the structure of the body leads to reduced or impaired function in the organs and tissues. Compensation gradually builds up until the body is unable to accommodate more change, at which time it may break down at the weakest part – even as a result of something quite trivial.

Headaches, for example, could be the final symptom of lower-back or foot-related problems of which the patient may not even be aware. Osteopathic patients benefit because the underlying cause of the problem is treated.

Osteopathic treatment can improve many parts of the body by restoring normal movement in areas that have become dysfunctional. This allows for the restoration of normal function and enables the tissues to repair themselves more naturally.

While immediate pain relief is an important consideration, the aim of osteopathy is to get patients well and to keep them well. Therefore, depending on the needs of the patient, treatment may be used in conjunction with other treatment methods such as medication, surgery, and X-rays.

HOW IS OSTEOPATHY APPLIED?

The aim of osteopathy is to correct problems in the body frame, making it easier for the body to function normally and reducing the chance of problems occurring in the future.

In seeking to maintain good health and prevent future problems, the osteopath’s plan may include advice on posture, diet, lifestyle and stress. While ‘biomechanics has become one of the most rapidly developing areas of medicine in recent years, osteopathy was one of the first professions to incorporate biomechanical analysis of how injuries occur and what the secondary effects are likely to be.

To take a simple example: if you go to an osteopath with a knee injury, the osteopath will do much more than just examine and treat your knee. S/he will want to know exactly how the injury occurred in order to assess not just which tissues in the knee are injured, but also whether there may be involvement of other areas with a mechanical relationship to the knee, such as the foot, hip, lower back and pelvis, and the associated soft tissues.

CONDITIONS IT CAN HELP

Osteopathy can be helpful in the management of: acute and chronic pain, back and neck pain, joint pain and stiffness, headaches and migraine, knee, hip and ankle arthritic pain, muscle ache/pain/spasm/cramps/stiffness, sciatica, lumbago, frozen shoulder, carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatic pain, pins and needles, numbness, trapped nerves, neuralgia, and bursitis.

Other problems: asthma and chest complaints, period pain, congested sinuses/sinusitis, circulatory problems, stress and fatigue, digestive disorders.

Common trauma/injuries: postural/occupational strain, lifting strains, whiplash/car injuries, spinal disc injuries, repetitive strain injury.

Baby/child problems: newborn checkup, ear infections/glue ear, infantile colic, behavioural problems, aches and pains, asthma/chest infections.

Discomforts of pregnancy: aches and pains, heartburn, breathing difficulties.

OSTEOPATHY AND PREGNANCY

Osteopathy is a perfectly safe form of physical therapy that can benefit women during all the different stages of pregnancy. It can be applied in the following ways before, during and after birth.

Aches and pains

Aches and pains are common during pregnancy, as the body changes shape to accommodate the increasing size and weight of the uterus. This involves considerable changes to posture.

If you have existing back problems or strains in your body from past accidents or trauma, it may be more difficult for you to accommodate these changes, and you may suffer from discomfort as a result.

Furthermore, the ligaments of the whole body soften during pregnancy due to the action of hormones. This allows the bones of the pelvis to separate slightly during the delivery to facilitate the passage of your babys head through the pelvis. Unfortunately, this softening affects your whole body and makes it more vulnerable to strain during pregnancy.

Poor posture may cause backache, neck ache, headaches, aching legs and undue fatigue.

Osteopathic treatment is helpful in assisting your body to make postural changes. It can also help to make your pregnancy more comfortable.

Preparation for labour

An important part of preparation for childbirth is to ensure that your pelvis is structurally balanced and able to allow the passage of your baby down the birth canal.

Trauma to the pelvic bones, coccyx or sacrum at any time in your life can leave increased tension in the muscles and strain within the ligaments and bones of the pelvis. This can limit the ability of these bones to adjust during labour, and thus limit the size of the pelvic outlet.

Osteopathic treatment is extremely effective in releasing old strains within the pelvis, thus giving the best chance of an easy and uncomplicated labour.

In most cases, osteopathic treatment to ensure that the pelvis and uterus are correctly balanced and aligned can help with discomforts of later pregnancy, and can often help your baby to turn into a better position.

Treatment after birth

Birth can be traumatic for mother and baby. However, osteopathy can be effective in helping you both to recover.

Your pelvis is vulnerable to lasting strains from the forces involved, particularly after a difficult delivery. Some of these strains can have a profound effect on your nervous system, and may contribute to postnatal depression.

After giving birth, your body not only has to recover from the changes it made during pregnancy, but also from the effects of delivery – all this while doing the very physically and mentally demanding job of caring for your new baby.

Caring for a baby can place enormous strain on the back during such activities as nursing in poor positions, lifting car seats (especially in and out of the car), reaching over the cot, or carrying your child on one hip.

Furthermore, unresolved childbirth stresses can contribute to ongoing back problems, period problems, stress incontinence, constipation, headache and more.

Osteopathic treatment can help you to return to physical and mental health after birth by releasing strains from both pregnancy and labour. This will allow you to relax and enjoy your new baby.

It can provide relief from lower back and leg pain, neck and shoulder pain, discomforts around the thorax, indigestion, wrist pain, and postnatal problems of the pelvis.

Your baby can also suffer long-lasting effects from the moulding process during birth, and an osteopathic check-up is recommended.

CONCLUSION

Osteopathy is a hands-on holistic therapy that considers all aspects of a patients history and examination. The clinical diagnostic conclusion which is vital prior to treatment ensures a natural, safe and very effective solution as well as minimising the number of treatments required. This allows patients to return to health quickly and to be well informed on how to manage their health now and in the future.

Recommended reading

1. Still AT. Osteopathy. Research and Practice. Seattle: Eastland Press, 1992

2. McKone WL. Osteopathic Medicine. Philosophy, Principles and Practice. London: Blackwell Science, 2001

 

NATURAL MEDICINE magazine,