What is Osteopathy?

~ An article written by Amy Wood for Alive Magazine – November, 2010

The Origin of Osteopathy

ATStillwStickOsteopathy was founded in 1874 by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still.
A licensed physician himself, Still’s belief in the then-current medical practices was shattered when he could not save his children and wife from a deadly bout of meningitis.

Over the next 10 years, Still dedicated his time to finding an alternative to allopathic medicine, one that encouraged the body’s ability to heal itself.  1892, in Missouri, Still founded the first school of osteopathy.

And Osteopathy Is…?

According to the Canadian College of Osteopathy, osteopathy can be defined as “a natural medicine which aims to restore function in the body by treating the causes of pain and imbalance.  To achieve this goal the Osteopathic Manual Practitioner relies on the quality and finesse of his/her palpation and works with the position, mobility, and quality of the tissues.”

Basically, osteopaths use their extensive knowledge of the human anatomy to feel or sense where imbalances or restrictions may be present.  Indications of an abnormality may be observed in irregular temperature, texture, moisture, or movement.

Once an abnormality is observed, treatment is then discussed and may include techniques such as soft tissue stretching, which increases blood flow and flexibility; mobilizing joints through their range of motion; and muscle energy, which releases muscle tightness by way of stretching and pushing against some resistance.

It Sounds Like Chiropractic

Daniel Palmer, an early student of Still’s at the American School of Osteopathy, went on to discover chiropractic in 1885.  Thus, osteopathy and chiropractic share some similar traits and philosophies, including the importance of a healthy spine to ensure good health and vitality.

In addition, both practitioners diagnose patients primarily by visual inspection and palpation; however, chiropractors also use x-rays as a means of diagnosis, whereas osteopaths try to avoid x-rays due to the long-term negative effects of radiation exposure.  According to Susanne R. Wallace, a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) from Jasper, Alberta, “chiropractic focuses on the so-called structural part of the body, meaning bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and fascia.”  She says that osteopathy, on the other hand, “takes every functional tissue into account, including inner organs/viscera, blood vessels, brain membranes, nerves and nerve membranes.”

The Whole Approach

Osteopathy takes a more holistic approach to treatment by focusing on the root cause of an illness or condition rather than treating its symptoms, and recognizing that the body, mind, and soul are all one entity.

In addition, osteopathy understands that all the systems in the body (respiratory, digestive, and nervous) are interconnected.  Wallace explains that osteopaths are fully educated in the embryological development of tissues.

For example, she says that “the mucosa of the sinuses, lungs, and bowels all have the same origin, so people with asthma often complain about bowel and sinus problems.”

Four Principles of Osteopathy

According to the Ontario Association of Osteopathic Manual Practitioners, osteopathy is rooted in four basic principles.

  1. Each structure in the body supports the body’s functions. If a structure is damaged, out of place, or otherwise not working properly, the body will not function at its best.
  2. The natural flow of the body’s fluids – lymphatic, vascular, and neurological – must be preserved and maintained.
  3. The human body is the sum of its parts. Its physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and cognitive systems do not work independently – they work in harmony.
  4. When the body has no restrictions, it has the inherent ability to heal itself.

What Does Osteopathy Treat?

Other than the obvious joint and muscle pains, Wallace has reported successfully treating a range of conditions, including migraines, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, sleeping disorders, anxiety, vertigo, severe menstrual cramps, and asthma.

In addition to treating present conditions, osteopaths aim to prevent injuries by suggesting options such as stretching exercises, proper posture technique, and stress relief techniques.  Also, osteopaths may suggest lifestyle and dietary changes

Osteopathy and the Health Care

The Canadian College of Osteopathy suggests that osteopathy be used not as an alternative to conventional medicine, but complementary to it.  By taking advantage of each modality’s strengths, the patient’s condition will be treated more quickly and efficiently, which is the ultimate goal of any medical practitioner.

Wallace explains, “Osteopaths have the training and the knowledge to know when to refer the patient to a physician, such as issues that have to be checked with x-rays or blood work.”  She also says that physicians who are familiar with osteopathy may refer patients to an osteopath in addition to allopathic treatments.

Dr. Andrew Still saw the need for an alternative to allopathic medicine, and since 1874 that alternative has been osteopathy.  Through extensive knowledge of the human anatomy and the belief that the body’s systems work cohesively, osteopaths can treat an assortment of conditions – you just need to feel it for yourself.

Three Categories of Treatment

This system is composed of the skull,
vertebrae, and sacrum, as well as the brain,
spinal cord, and the cranial fluids. The
osteopath accurately manipulates the
cranial bones and surrounding membranes to
restore proper function.
This system is composed of the soft internal
organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, and the
structures supporting these organs. The
osteopath palpates the area between the
organ and its surrounding structure to relieve
This system includes the bones, joints,
ligaments, muscles, and connective tissues.
The osteopath manually manipulates these
tissues in order to mobilize and reactivate
them and to treat dysfunction

 ~ Amy Wood, Alive Magazine – November, 2010