I don’t know much about osteopathy. Can you tell me about it?

August 8, 2018

To be honest, as a profession, we osteopaths have been pretty poor at explaining what we do. It’s challenging to find a way that:

  • really gets it;
  • is consistent with what osteopathy has always been about;
  • applies to osteopaths generally;
  • captures how complex it can be; and
  • explains it simply enough for it to actually communicate meaningfully.

One reason it’s challenging is because osteopathy is something of an art form – different practitioners express it differently.

It’s also a way of thinking – or “paradigm” – about human health that is really different from the sort of thinking that dominates medicine.

Moreover, there are other forms of hands-on therapy that have learned some of the techniques developed by osteopaths, without necessarily adopting the same thought processes.

So, I don’t know if I can do better, but here is my take on osteopathy:

1) Osteopathy is a way of THINKING about health, more than a set of techniques

A.T. Still, the ‘discoverer’ (as he put it) of osteopathy said:

“First, Osteopathy is not a system of movements (techniques); second, neither Osteopathy nor its application to the patient is something that can be passed around on a platter. One must delve and dig for it themselves. Third, its application to the patient must be given by reason and not by rule. Osteopathic physicians must be able to give reason for the treatment they give, not so much to the patient, but to themselves. Neither am I operating a school to teach a lot of parrots, or turn out just another doctor. The field is already overcrowded with those who for hundreds of years have treated patients by rule rather than reason.”

This is how osteopaths reason things out.

2) Human bodies are amazingly good at healing themselves. Our self-repair processes are far more sophisticated than any piece of chemistry or technology that we have devised. So, if people aren’t getting better on their own, it’s important to understand the CAUSE.

A.T. Still again:

“When we take up the principles, we get down to Nature. It is ever willing, self-caring, self-feeding and self-protecting.”

“I want it understood that I look upon the treating of effects as being as unwarranted as it would be for the fireman of a city to fight the smoke and pay no attention to the cause that produces it.”

3) Once you start thinking about causes, you realise that everything is CONNECTED.

It is really helpful to think through the ways that different issues and tissues connect, in terms of: anatomical structures and forces; fluid flows; and communication.

Mechanically, how is a neck that is jammed up connected to the fact that the diaphragm (a dome of muscle stretched between the ribs) is really tight, and is pulling down on the connective tissues that go up inside the body and attach to the neck?

In terms of nerves, how might that same jammed up neck be affecting the free-flow of communication through the phrenic nerve, which comes from the neck and supplies the diaphragm?

In terms of fluid flows, how does the fact that the diaphragm doesn’t move very well affect the fact that that it isn’t increasing the pressure in the abdomen when it flattens out; and how is that affecting fluid drainage from the abdomen?

And what does that have to do with the patient’s constantly irritable digestive system? Where is the tension in the smooth muscles of the digestive system? How is that affecting how easily the diaphragm can move? How is that, in turn, affecting the patient’s breathing?

And how is their breathing affecting their neck? And so on.

Osteopathy is, arguably, the only system of health care that thinks this holistically about the whole person, through literally every “system” and tissue of the body (although, of course, there are undoubtedly individual practitioners from other disciplines who think along these lines).

4) We have a wide range of techniques and tools available.

One (but not the only one) of the reasons that people aren’t getting better can be that things are physically tight or CONSTRICTED from moving very freely, at the macroscopic level; and that these restrictions are being held in place by a vicious cycle. This can alter anatomical structures and forces, fluid flows, and communication.

Because we think of things in this way, we start largely (but not exclusively) by thinking about things at a macroscopic level, and allowing these changes to affect the biochemistry, through mechanisms like reducing inflammation, reducing pain and improving fluid flows. There is plenty of scientific evidence that that works.

Osteopaths have, over the years, developed a very wide range of techniques to facilitate ease of movement of, and integration between, all of the tissues of the body: bones, muscles, glands, nerves organs, connective tissues, vessels and more.

The Four C’s

So, I think of osteopathy as being about the three Cs: CAUSES, CONNECTIONS and CONSTRICTIONS. Followed by COMPLEXITY, because we try to unravel what is happening for each person as an individual, rather than just seeing them as the representative of a category.