What is osteopathy?


When it comes to addressing aches and pains, there are a multitude of services available to choose from. Many people don’t know what Osteopathy is or how it works, so they miss out on a potentially effective way to end their chronic pain. To help people seek Osteopathy earlier on in their treatment and to spread the word about this amazing service, here is everything you need to know about Osteopathy.


Osteopathy was founded by American physician, Dr. Andrew Taylor Still (1828-1917) who was born in Lee County, Virginia. After losing his children to an outbreak of different illnesses combined with personal struggles from the war, he became dissatisfied with the medical methods of his time. He began to reject prevailing medical practices like amputation and dependence on drugs. He wanted to pursue a non-surgical and non-medicinal approach to health care. 

Dr. Still focused on anatomy and the musculoskeletal system when treating the body. His diagnosis and treatment relied on the belief that humans should be treated comprehensively as a whole unit since all body systems operate in unison. Dr. Still focused on developing treatments that removed mechanical blockages from the body and that impede the circulation between these systems. 

Dr. Still’s original osteopathic philosophies concentrated on the relationship between structure and function. These are the four main Osteopathy principles he developed:

  1. The body is a unit, the person represents a combination of body, mind and spirit

  2. The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing and health maintenance

  3. Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated

  4. Rational treatment is based upon these 3 principles

After years of opposition from other doctors, the church and even his family, Dr. Still’s credibility began to grow and he had more patients than he alone could treat. In 1892 he opened the first official Osteopathy school in Kirskville, Missouri. 

Osteopathic Treatment & Techniques

Today, osteopathy treatment is a common practice around the world. It effectively treats chronic pain and a number of other conditions, such as sciatica, frozen shoulder, migraines and many more. A typical visit is very similar to other health services such as physiotherapy, chiropractic, and massage therapy. Patients go through a thorough history intake and assessment, which determines an osteopathic diagnosis.  Once a diagnosis is made, the Osteopath will develop a treatment plan. Generally, a weekly visit is encouraged for the first few weeks of treatment. 

An Osteopathy session can range anywhere from 30 minutes to 60 minutes or longer. Treatment lengths are more similar to massage therapy, where patients get the majority of their treatment time on the table. Less so like a chiropractic visit where you may receive just an adjustment and be on your way or like a physiotherapy check up, where they may focus mostly on monitoring your specific exercise regimen. In Osteopathy, patients receive each minute of treatment they book for, as opposed to just seeing the therapist for a visit.

But what is it exactly? Osteopathy treatment is essentially a gentle manual treatment that includes joint mobilization, muscle energy techniques, soft tissue work, stretching, therapeutic exercises, orthopedic assessments as well as cranial and visceral techniques. Using the original osteopathy principles, practitioners will adopt different techniques among the ones listed above to get to the root cause of the problem. It is common however for different therapists to use techniques outside their specialty in order to find different ways to alleviate a problem. Everything must stay within their scope of practice. For example, a massage therapist cannot perform a High Velocity Low Amplitude adjustment, which can only be done by chiropractors.

In osteopathy, the standard is always a form of joint mobilization. Techniques in addition to those could be dependent of the therapists preference and specialty. It is important for manual osteopaths to incorporate multiple technique styles because as well all know every body can operate different, injure different, and respond to treatment differently. Dr. Still’s original approach to osteopathy was looking at the musculoskeletal system and that is directly what joint mobilization targets. It is the passive movement of the articular surface of the joint which can include sliding, gliding and spinning in order to help replenish the synovial fluid between that targeted joint and improve range of motion.

Muscle Energy Technique or also known as Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) another technique widely used which involves a combination of contracting and then stretching the targeted muscle. This stretching technique is reported to be more effective than just static stretching in some cases since the muscle contraction releases endorphins to improve range of motion more effectively. Visceral osteopathy and Cranial osteopathy were adapted to the osteopathic field after Dr. Still’s involvement but were built on Dr.Still’s original principles 

Manual Osteopath’s will also focus on the systems of the body when treating in some sort of sequence. This means that they could consider the nervous system, musculoskeletal system, lymphatic system and circulatory system when looking at a shoulder problem for example. If a patient reports a numbness or tingling going down the hand they can suspect a nerve pinching originating from the Brachial Plexus which is a nervous system issue. If the same patient reports an achyness in the joint through a certain range of motion this is also a musculoskeletal issue. On top of these issues the therapist may notice that there is a bit of swelling or inflammation around the deltoid and trapezius muscle supporting the soldier. From this, the osteopath can suspect that there is insufficient drainage of waste and fluid and may perform lymphatic drainage techniques which considers the lymphatic system and circulatory system. 

This outlines all the different branches of the body systems the Manual Osteopath will treat even if we are looking at one area of pain. Looking at the same shoulder problem one Manual Osteopath may start with musculoskeletal techniques then look at other systems or another therapist may start with considering the nervous system first. Which ever way there is always some connection that is taken into account because an area of pain may have different roots and causes. The same philosophy can be applied when looking at the area of symptoms. An example of this could be between the organ system (viscera) and the musculoskeletal system. Low back pain can be looked at directly at the lumbar area and also from an outside source such as the kidneys since kidney dysfunction can be a source of low back issues as well. In summary, the approach to treating a condition osteopathically includes prioritizing different techniques, bodily systems and considering a differential diagnosis which means there may be different causes for a specific symptom. 

The form of treatment, session length and techniques are always dependent on the therapist’s approach. Each therapist may have their own speciality, which could mean something they have more passion towards, something they find most effective for treating or something they may notice a majority of their patients responds better towards. It is also important for the therapist to note that every patient is different. This could mean that each patient can respond to treatment differently. It could be injured in a different spot or it could respond to pain differently. An effective Manual Osteopath would consider all these aspects when creating the best treatment plan for the type of patient they are working with.