osteopath presses thumbs into leg of woman

Osteopathy: Definition and Usage

osteopath helps patient twist on exam table

We all expect to face health issues at one time or another. But when we don’t know what’s causing the physical pain, it can be doubly-frustrating. We treat the symptoms, but that feels like just skimming the surface.

Whether you’re experiencing discomfort that just won’t go away or a sudden injury that prevents you from participating in the activities you enjoy, osteopathy could be an effective approach to relieve your pain and get you moving again

What is osteopathy?

Osteopathy, or osteopathic approach, is a hands-on manual therapy treatment method that looks at the way the body functions as whole, rather than viewing its parts or symptoms separately (i.e. a hurt shoulder here, a neck strain there).

It’s based on the philosophy that the body has an innate ability to heal itself when its components are in balance. The goal of osteopathy is to restore that proper balance and function, allowing your body to heal through its own natural processes. It works to balance your nervous, circulatory and lymphatic systems, improving your range of motion and relieving discomfort or other symptoms.

The four principles of osteopathic philosophy

The philosophy of osteopathy has four main principles:

  1. Each structure in your body supports the overall function of your body.
  2. The natural flow of your body’s fluids (i.e. lymphatic, vascular and neurological) needs to be preserved and maintained.
  3. The physical, emotional, social, spiritual and cognitive systems of your body don’t operate in isolation. They are interrelated and have to work in harmony to provide you with good health.
  4. Without restrictions on its systems, the body is capable of healing itself.

osteopath manipulates patient thigh

How does it work?

An osteopath will work to find and release any restrictions or barriers that are getting in the way of your body’s own healing process. They do this by using a variety of hands-on manual techniques that promote self-healing.

Osteopathic treatments involve gentle and non-invasive techniques that require minimal to no effort from you—you just get the benefits. Specific techniques may include:

  • Soft tissue manipulation
  • Positional release techniques
  • Myofascial release
  • Lymphatic drainage
  • Osteopathic articular technique
  • Visceral manipulation
  • Muscle energy techniques
  • Strain-counterstrain
  • Cranio-sacral techniques
  • Neuromuscular techniques
  • Trigger points

osteopath helps woman with legs on foam roller

Assessment and treatment: What should I expect?

Osteopathy starts with a medical questionnaire and initial evaluation. During this evaluation, the osteopath may use hands-on techniques like palpation, a high sense of touch developed to detect any modifications in your tissues. By examining the position, mobility and vitality of the tissues, they look for signs of congestion, dehydration, scarring, stiffness, density and loss of resilience.

From this assessment, the osteopath will determine which tissues or systems require (the most) immediate attention and develop a treatment plan. They will use stretching, pressure, massage, mobilization and manipulation through a variety of specific techniques, all aimed at restoring your normal function.

Treatment sessions are often booked with a week to two in between, to allow your body to integrate the changes and begin self-healing.

Can osteopathy help my lower back pain?

Lower back pain is one of the most common reasons people seek out osteopathy. It can indeed bring relief of pain and stress, without resorting to medication or surgical options.

The earlier you seek treatment, the more likely an osteopath can prevent your condition from becoming chronic. Beyond fixing your current back pain, osteopaths can also provide advice on maintaining good health through exercise, posture, diet and more.

osteopath adjusts a womans shoulder

What else can osteopathy treat?

Osteopathy can be an effective treatment for a variety of illnesses, medical conditions and injuries. The ranges goes from pediatric conditions to pain conditions to systemic problems that involve neurological, digestive or circulatory systems, as well as chronic infectious disease.

Common conditions treated with osteopathy include:

  • Neck and back pain
  • Sciatica
  • Colic
  • Migraines
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Tennis elbow
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Scoliosis
  • Whiplash
  • Post-operative pain or adhesions
  • Tendonitis
  • Cramps, nausea and intestinal pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Respiratory problems (i.e. asthma)

In addition to treating current conditions, osteopathy can also be used as a method of injury prevention and in the maintenance of good health.

The history of osteopathy

Osteopathy goes back to the 1800s. Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, who was trained in mainstream medicine, tragically lost three children in a meningitis epidemic in Missouri. It was then that he began to look for a different medical model that would be more effective at treating disease.

Dr. Still spent a decade delving into health and disease in the context of human anatomy. Through his research, he developed a theory about how the free flow of fluids in the body’s various systems allows it to self-heal. He saw success from applying his theory in the treatment of musculoskeletal problems, along with common diseases from that period of history (i.e. tuberculosis, pneumonia and typhoid fever). His research is the basis for osteopathic philosophy today.

It’s important to note that there is a difference between practitioners of osteopathy in Canada and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, which are primarily in the U.S. There are some Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine who have trained in the States and are licensed to practice in Canada, but very few, since there are no schools here as of yet. Dr. Still’s philosophy remains the basis behind both professions, but the education and training involved is different.

Osteopathy versus chiropractic care

The two disciplines have some similarities. First of all, osteopaths and chiropractors both treat pain and injury. They also both provide hands-on treatment that works to release tension in your joints, muscles, nerves and fascia in order to bring healing.

However, while chiropractors focus mostly on muscles, joints and nerves, osteopaths also incorporate your soft tissues, scars and fluids, paying attention to how everything functions together. Chiropractors may also use tools like activators or instruments in the Graston technique, whereas osteopaths rely on their touch (palpations) to both assess and treat injury and pain.

Osteopathy versus physiotherapy

Similar to chiropractic care and osteopathy, physiotherapy also treats pain and injury with hands-on treatment for your joints, muscles, nerves and fascia.

Physiotherapy differs from osteopathy first in its assessment and then in its treatment techniques. While osteopathy uses a hands-on only approach to both, physiotherapy often includes tools, exercise and other resources. Treatments sometimes include modalities such as ultrasound, heat, electrical stimulation and more.