Osteopathy is based on the idea that structure of the body governs its function; if some part of the body is out of alignment, the surrounding systems will not function as they were meant to. The result of this misalignment is pain or disease, meaning that a part of the body is not functioning as it should. If you have stubborn pain or a nagging health concern, osteopathy may be a part of your healing plan.

What is Osteopathy?

Osteopathy is a system of natural treatment that, like many other types of natural medicine, believes that the body can heal itself, especially when obstacles to healing are removed. When the body’s fluids, such as blood, lymph, joint fluid, digestive juices, etc., cannot properly flow around the body without interruption, then illness can develop. Fluids in the body help get rid of inflammatory waste, they help hormones and enzymes travel throughout the body; they are necessary for proper function of every organ system.

If left long enough without a solution, these nagging issues manifest as illness. Some factors affecting illness include:

  • Aging
  • Trauma
  • Accident
  • Infection
  • Surgery
  • Childbirth
  • Repetitive motion
  • Mental/emotional stress

As the body ages, it becomes less able to mend itself, and as a consequence, structural issues in bones, and soft tissues including muscles and organs, arise and do not heal on their own.

However, many things can cause fluids to stagnate, such as stress and worry, improper breathing, too much sitting, poor posture, and a host of other causes. The result of these stagnations is dysfunction: if a tissue cannot circulate fluid properly in or around it, then that tissue cannot function as it was meant to. Over enough time, this dysfunction begins to affect other parts of the body, even those that seem far from the root of the problem. This reason is why the osteopathic practitioner assesses the entire body, from head to toe, in order to determine the source of the original complaint. It is important to understand that the body is so highly connected that the source of the problem may seem very distant from where the patient feels the pain or issue.

For example, knee pain may be arising from a fixation of the jaw muscles, and treating the knee in isolation will accomplish only a small part of the healing process, and the other problem areas must also be treated in order to fully resolve the problem. This way of thinking is not exclusive to osteopaths; other physical medicine experts such as massage therapists and chiropractors, for example, understand that knots, or trigger points, in muscles can radiate pain to other areas of the body and cause issues such as headaches and other types of persistent pain. Osteopaths take this principle and apply it to all of the body’s tissues, even abdominal organs.

The osteopath’s main diagnostic tool is his or her hands, which are highly trained to detect even slight restrictions in a body part’s natural movement or mobility. The osteopath will also feel for the organ or tissue’s position, as a malpositioned muscle or organ can cause a restriction, or can pull, twist, or contort the tissue and block the natural flow of beneficial fluids around that tissue. If an organ or tissue is not moving or functioning as it should, a skilled osteopath will be able to perceive this slight but problematic dysfunction long before the same problem could be detected on conventional diagnostic imaging. 

A Brief History of Osteopathy

Like many forms of complementary medicine, osteopathy arose from an American doctor who felt that medicine at the time was doing little to help the root cause of patient illness. Osteopathy was founded by a doctor named Andrew T Still in the late 1800s. In contrast to his colleague who were, in his opinion, making their patients sicker, Still focused on removing the blockages to proper tissue movement via gentle physical manipulation. Through his techniques, Dr. Still was able to treat physical pain as well as infectious diseases such as typhoid and tuberculosis. After founding his school in 1892 and writing on the subject, Dr. Still taught students to align bones in proper relative position to one another and to ensure organs were positioned in their proper cavities in order to ensure their optimal function. By 1930, osteopathy adopted a full medical model of conventional diagnostics and treatment in addition to osteopathic techniques and all graduates of osteopathic programs were then fully-licensed medical doctors. Osteopathy reached Europe and Canada through the teachings of Dr. Still’s proteges.

How Does Osteopathy Work?

In order to restore function and minimize pain, the osteopath will very gently move or adjust an area of the body that requires realignment. The motion used by the osteopath can often be very small, but it is very deliberate; the motion can either be toward or away from the source of the problem. While it may seem odd to move the body part in the direction of the problem, this technique allows the target tissue to relax as the practitioner is supporting the tissue. Relaxation then allows fluid to flow in, around, and through the tissue properly, and encourages the body to correct the problem.

There are four different techniques used by osteopathic practitioners to restore normal structure and function to the body:

  1. Osteo-articular adjustments. These manipulations allow the osteopath provide an impulse to the joint to reduce strain instead of applying a force in order to move the joint past its natural range of motion. The goal in this case is to encourage the surfaces of the joint to begin to move properly again as they had before pain and disease set in. 
  2. Cranio-sacral application. This technique relies on the assumption that the body and its tissue are in constant but very subtle motion. This motion is felt and evaluated by the trained osteopath, who aims to ensure that the motion is optimal and in agreement with the body’s natural rhythm.
  3. Visceral normalization. As previously mentioned, an imbalance or misalignment of an abdominal organ can lead to pain in the muscles and joints elsewhere in the body. A well-trained osteopath can detect disturbances and misalignment in organs deep within the abdomen, ensuring that the organ is not impinging on any nerves or vessels in the area and is allowed to move freely without restriction in its own space in the body.
  4. Fascial release. This type of manipulation aims to restore the proper movement and function of soft membrane-like tissues that typically surround muscles. The goal of this technique is to improve mobility. Muscle pain often arises from fascial restrictions that need to be released. Fascia is a membrane-like tissue that wraps the body’s muscles, and it has its own nerve network and blood vessels. Fascia can become restricted, dehydrated and sticky where it should otherwise be flexible and move smoothly over other tissues, and osteopathic treatment can restore proper fascial movement to ease pain and improve flexibility in patients.

Conditions Treated by Osteopathy

  • Digestive concerns – there are many different digestive organs in the abdomen, and a misalignment can cause them to function poorly. The result is stomach pain, constipation, heartburn, and a host of other symptoms. An osteopathic practitioner can help guide these organs back into alignment and help digestion run smoothly.
  • Chronic pain – whether the result of physical or mental trauma, chronic pain can be complex to treat and may not respond well to pain-relief medications. Osteopaths can make connections between two distant malfunctioning body parts in order to reach the root of the pain. They will then use gentle manipulations to help the muscles, bones, and joints move properly again, freeing the body of its painful restrictions. Some studies show that osteopathy is a promising treatment for chronic inflammatory disease, which is a common cause of pain.
  • Headaches – preliminary studies show that osteopathic treatment may be effective against headaches, and our patients with headaches would do almost anything for relief. Headaches are often due to muscle tension and trigger points, or “knots” that form in muscles. Osteopathy can help reduce the muscle tension and relieve trigger points.
  • Sleep issues, including sleep apnea – there are many factors that contribute to poor sleep. Pain, chronic stress, stimulant use, and sleep apnea are major factors in insomnia. Osteopathy can help address the improper tissue tone and nervous system hyperactivity that contribute to problems like sleep apnea, which is a factor in the development of heart disease.
  • Lymphatic circulation – lymph clears out infections and inflammation from the body, but it can easily become stuck because it does not have a pump like the heart to move it around. Osteopathic treatment can remove the blockages to lymphatic circulation and decrease inflammation and swelling that can cause pain and disease.
  • Pelvic health – much like the digestive organs can become misaligned, so can the pelvic organs. If the uterus or ovaries do not move properly in the pelvic space, menstrual or ovulation pain can occur. Some minor adjustments can help menstrual cycles flow with less pain and discomfort.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Does Osteopathy Feel Like? Is it painful?

While there may be some minor discomfort after treatment as the body adjusts, treatment itself should not be painful. Osteopathic manipulations are very gentle, often more gentle than massage techniques, Osteopathy can be very relaxing, and feeling relaxed sets the body into a healing state.

How is Osteopathy Different From Chiropractic?

Both of these professionals treat the back, but the chiropractor’s adjustments are more forceful, bringing the joint beyond its typical range of motion in order to restore proper motion to the joint. The osteopath can also adjust the spine, but not while applying force to the back bones; instead, the osteopath applies a gentle “impulse” to encourage the bones to move more freely in alignment. Chiropractors also focus more on the bones and joints and typically treat the spine, whereas the osteopath will focus on all areas of the body, especially the soft tissues.

How is Osteopathy Different From Massage?

Both massage therapists and osteopaths treat the soft tissues of the body such as muscles, but osteopaths can treat a variety of abdominal and pelvic conditions as well, whereas the massage therapist is less likely to be trained in techniques affecting the abdomen. Massage can also be much more forceful than osteopathy, applying very firm pressure to trigger points in order to loosen them, and osteopaths use a much more gentle approach. Sometimes, it is a matter of patient preference.

Are Osteopaths Doctors?

In the United States, osteopathic physicians are medical doctors who go through conventional medical training and receive additional education in osteopathic medicine. These practitioners receive the designation Doctor of Osteopathy, or DO, and have the same scope of conventional medical doctors such as prescribing medications or performing surgery with additional training in osteopathic manipulation. In Ontario, osteopaths receive a DOMP designation, and are called osteopathic manual practitioners. These osteopathic practitioners are not licensed to practice medicine in Canada unless they also have a medical degree. While our osteopathic practitioner is not licensed to practice medicine in Ontario, he has practiced as a medical doctor in his home country and has extensive training and experience in conventional and osteopathic medicine.

If you’re curious about how osteopathy can help you, you can schedule a free consult with one of our osteopaths here.