More about osteopathy

Osteopathy is an approach to restoring health that focuses on the muscular and skeletal systems. By alleviating or correcting problems in the spine and other joints the osteopath aims to improve the circulation and nerve supply to vital organs as well as aiding structural integrity. Many osteopaths also apply manual techniques to treat soft tissues of the body, such as lungs, liver, and intestines.

Although associated mainly with the management of back and joint problems, osteopathy may be of benefit in a wide range of other disorders ranging from headaches to asthma and bronchitis, arthritis and developmental problems of children and infants.

Osteopathic diagnosis

When you first visit an osteopath, a careful case history is taken to ascertain the type of problem you have. The osteopath will enquire about the nature of the pain, or other symptoms you are experiencing, the circumstances of its onset, and what aggravates it or alleviates it. He or she will also need to know about any general health problems and medications you may be taking.

The osteopath will then carry out an examination for which you will need to undress to the underclothes. In order that the osteopath’s highly developed sense of touch can be used to identify points of weakness or excessive strain throughout the body, contact with the skin is essential. The examination will consist of a visual assessment of posture and movement, basic neurological tests (reflexes), and manual assessment of the muscle tone and range of movements of spine and other joints.

Often the examination becomes the treatment as the osteopath starts to feel the areas of restriction in spinal mobility and begins to stretch or loosen muscles. Further investigations, such as X-rays, scans, or blood and urine tests, may also be requested, particularly for the assessment of conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis.


This can differ between practitioners, but nearly always consists of gentle manipulations of the muscles and other soft tissues and the joints. In order to release joints that may have become restricted in their range of movement or displaced (a subtle shift of alignment not to be confused with dislocation), an osteopathic adjustment may be made. This is a focused, high velocity manoeuvre that sometimes results in an audible clicking or snapping sound. It is generally quite painless and is believed to be caused by the release of a vacuum that builds up in the capsule of small joints.

The osteopathic manipulation is not, as is sometimes mistakenly believed, ‘clicking the joints back into place’. Only a very few vertebrae of the spinal column show any appreciable change of position in response to adjustments. It does, however, release an area of fixation which can be a source of considerable disturbance and discomfort. An adjustment in one area of the spine can often relieve discomfort in another because of the important postural relationships of the column as a whole.

An osteopathic adjustment is not always appropriate because the patient may be in acute pain or elderly. Some younger people also have a condition known as ankylosing spondylitis, where the spinal joints become inflamed and eventually fuse. In such cases the treatment emphasis is on the soft-tissue procedures and gentle easing of the joints without any sort of force.

What can be treated with osteopathy ?

Although associated mainly with the management of back and joint pains and sporting injuries, there are many other disorders for which osteopathy may be of benefit. A selection of conditions for which osteopathy may afford some relief is listed below:

generalised aches and pains
arthritic pain
muscle spasms
joint pains, lumbago
rheumatic pain
frozen shoulder/shoulder pain and tennis elbow arising from assiciated musculoskeletal conditions of the neck and back
circulatory problems
digestive problems

How long will it take to get better ?

Very rarely a spinal problem of recent onset can be resolved quickly with an appropriate adjustment. Commonly, however, acute problems have arisen only after a long prelude of stress and tension and can take many weeks to rectify. Most back problems need six to ten weeks of regular treatment but there will usually be progressive improvement after two or three treatments. As progress is made, treatments that may have needed to be once or twice a week can be at longer intervals until you become self sufficient.

For chronic problems, particularly those associated with osteoarthritis, regular treatment at monthly or less frequent intervals may be advisable. People who have had chronic back problems should have a spinal check at six-monthly intervals.

What is the difference between osteopathy and chiropractic ?

Their objectives are very similar - to restore the structural integrity of the body. There are, however, some differences in the emphasis and techniques of treatment between osteopathy and chiropractic.

Osteopathy emphasises the restoration of circulation to body organs while chiropractic believes in releasing nerve supply. Osteopaths use longer leverages in their manipulation whereas chiropractors use more direct thrusts on the bones and focus principally on the spinal column. In practice they have much in common and often use each other's techniques.

Cranial osteopathy

This approach, a specialism within osteopathic practice, uses very gentle techniques to identify and correct mechanical disturbances in and around the joints of the skull and to restore the harmony of the rhythmical movements that are believed to take place between the cranium and the rest of the spinal column, in particular the sacrum, the triangular bone at the base of the spine.

Finding an osteopath

If you live in the UK you can find an osteopath near you from the Register of the General Osteopathic Council (


R. Newman Turner, ND,DO, BAc